For independent wireless LAN vendors, advanced management technology will be more important than hardware as competition in the crowded WLAN market becomes more ruthless.
"Management is going to become the key differentiator for enterprise wireless products," said Craig Mathias, principal of Farpoint Group. "You would think they could get differentiation out of the radios, but they all use the chips from the big wireless LAN chip vendors out there. There will be some difference in performance based on the way they wire the chips together and drivers and things like that, but overall the radio environment is the biggest variable."
And to cope with the changing environment that wireless LAN radios must face, whether it's interference or changes in an office layout, a robust management technology is essential.
This notion is why Aruba Networks' 2008 acquisition of wireless LAN management software vendor Airwave Wireless was so critical. It gave Aruba a strong network management platform.
Wireless LAN vendors that also have a wired networking business have recognized this trend as well, Mathias said. They emphasize the advantages of a unified approach to network management, where the wired and wireless network are managed together, rather than as two separate infrastructures. Cisco Systems has championed this for some time, and HP ProCurve has ramped up its own story on this ever since it snapped up independent wireless LAN vendor Colubris.
WLAN management via mobile device
The independent wireless vendors will work on their own to differentiate themselves through management technology. It's expected that management product announcements will become almost as common as announcements for new access points and controllers.
For instance, Aruba announced version 6.3 of its AirWave Wireless Management Suite last week, just five months after announcing version 6.2 in January.
The new AirWave version offers customers full graphical configuration of Aruba Mobility Controllers and rules-based rogue classification. Aruba also claims to have created the integration of Aruba-specific features into the AirWave platform, which was originally a vendor-agnostic management technology. Version 6.3 also features Web-enabled network monitoring capabilities accessible via mobile devices such as the iPhone, Windows Mobile and BlackBerry.
Mathias said remote management via mobile device is a prime example of why wireless LAN management technology is so critical. The key differentiator for these management technologies is their ability to reduce operational expenses. Being able to access a wireless LAN management platform via a mobile device has the potential to save network managers a lot of time.
"If you look at wireless LANs from a long-term perspective, there are two key cost elements," Mathias said. "One is capital expense. But the bigger one is operating expense. What companies are doing now is focusing on tools to minimize the operating expenses, and that's what [wireless LAN] management is all about."
From wireless LAN monitoring to troubleshooting
Another wireless LAN vendor, Meru Networks, announced a major advance in its wireless LAN management technology this week with the release of E(z)RF 2.0. This new version takes Meru's product from a network monitoring tool to a troubleshooting tool.
"Basically, the current paradigm for wireless network management has been mostly around monitoring, not around troubleshooting," said Joe Epstein, senior director of technology for Meru.
Epstein said many wireless LAN management technologies are very good at polling network elements and providing network managers with statistics on what is happening in the network.
"The stats can't show you what the problem was and why it happened," he said. "It only shows you that there has been a problem. Now the administrator is left scratching his head wondering why did this happen. What an AirWave does is, they go out and do periodic polling. Normally people set polling for every 20 or 30 minutes because they want to limit the amount of load on the system. But now they need more than 30 minutes' granularity to know what's happening."
But Meru has taken a different approach.
"We're capturing every event happening over the air from a client perspective, every relevant aspect of wireless protocols, like 802.11n authentication and association message, IP address assignments. That capture is sent back to a central database. This makes it very simple for IT managers to rewind and recreate a network at the time that the troubleshooting occurs," said Kamel Anand, Meru senior vice president of marketing and corporate strategy. "They can see the RF characteristics at that point. They can see heat maps in terms of throughput and coverage. They can see what other clients were doing and how they associated around the neighborhood. And they can see what the state of the infrastructure itself was."
Meru uses all this captured information to power a knowledge-based inference engine that looks at events coming into the database and correlates them with any of 100 patterns that Meru has programmed into the platform so that the technology can quickly identify what kinds of problems are occurring and how they can be resolved.
"Many of the features I looked for and liked in AirWave are basically available in E(z)RF 2.0," said Brian Fruits, a network manager at a large university that has about 700 Meru access points and nine controllers on its campus. "It's definitely much better as a one-stop place to look at the network. If there's a problem on the network, they've made it pretty easy to click here and there and dig deeper into information and diagnostics. I can get down to the problem pretty quickly and easily without having to log into individual access points. I don't have to keep nine windows open now."
Meru, like Aruba, is also offering iPhone access through a Web-enabled E(z)RF interface.
Fruits said the next set of wireless LAN management features he'd like to see from Meru is configuration management.
"We do configuration management by hand," he said. "The biggest thing is consistency, especially when it comes down to security profiles. You have to have a template you can run across an entire environment."
Involve operations team when selecting wireless LAN management
Overall, Mathias is impressed by Meru's troubleshooting strategy, calling it a "forensic approach." The challenge for these wireless strategies at this point is that they could depend on getting networking planning teams investigating a wireless LAN installation to involve their network operations counterparts in the vendor selection process. Network operations teams know what sort of management capabilities they will need from a wireless LAN vendor.
"It often surprises me that bids come out of a network planning group and rarely out of the operations group," Mathias said. "Sometimes the operations group is not consulted at all, and that is just wrong."
Let us know what you think about the story; email: Shamus McGillicuddy, News Editor