When wireless networks were limited to a few hotspots, unified networking may have seemed like overkill. But network administrators who now struggle to monitor, maintain and secure wireless local area networks (WLANs) that have become as ubiquitous as their legacy wired networks will soon find relief in unified network management tools.
"The part of unified networking that really matters the most is on the management side -- not the hardware side," said Craig Mathias, principal analyst at Farpoint Group. "Operations are on a human cost curve, which only goes up. People only get more expensive over time … so if we lose productivity in trying to manage the network, we're losing."
Vendors may pitch hardware that integrates wired and wireless functions to save money on capital expenses, but Mathias noted that hardware alone doesn't cure what plagues network admins most here: the burden of duplicating management, security and authentication on two networks.
"The whole point is to get the total cost of ownership down by minimizing the operational expenses and not just improving the productivity of users, but the productivity of people operating the network," Mathias said. "In the non-unified approach, you truly have information overload."
Vendors offer varied approach to unified networking
Analysts say unified networking has been held back by how the wireless market has matured. Traditional wired networking vendors have acquired smaller niche wireless vendors, including Cisco Systems' acquisition of Airespace in 2005 and Hewlett-Packard's buyout of Colubris Networks in 2008.
As a result, integration between vendors' wired and acquired wireless technologies has been slow, delaying the development of hardware and software to unify them, analysts said.
"The best approach to this is to build all the gear from the ground up -- from a common base of code, from a common base of technology -- and nobody I know in this space is doing that right now because it's all coming from somewhere else," said Chris Silva, senior analyst at Forrester Research. "The company that does that is the best company."
"Nobody actually has everything that you need," Mathias said. "[Wireless technology] is still evolving at a fairly rapid clip, so you can't really expect we would have the optimal solution today."
Albeit slowly, vendors are offering solutions for unified networking. HP's ProCurve division has outpaced others and is expected to advance with more unified network management tools once HP's acquisition of 3Com is finalized, according to Mathias and Silva.
ProCurve touts its software solution "ProCurve Manager Plus" -- and the various plug-ins users can buy à la carte to integrate wireless and security management -- as its "secret sauce," said Rich Horsley, ProCurve director of product mobility marketing.
The unified networking management software enables admins to establish a quality of service setting or user authentication, for example, on any device in both networks via one interface.
"This is not Star Trek technology," Horsley said. "In 2009, we expect to be able to get up and move to a conference room to the cafeteria and back again and have access to the same resources."
Wireless LAN vendor Motorola has partnered with Brocade Communications and Extreme Networks with OEM agreements that include the development of WLAN controller blades that can slide into wired edge switches, allowing network admins to manage the wireless network through their wired infrastructure with common management and security policies across wired and wireless.
Earlier this year, 3Com opened its Unified Network Access suite -- a collection of wired and wireless networking gear that integrates functionality and management -- to the North American market, said Scott Lindsey, 3Com senior director of mobility and voice products.
In addition to its Wireless Service Manager module -- consolidating wired and wireless management and security tools in one platform -- the company released 24-port Ethernet switches with a built-in WLAN controller to support up to 48 access points.
"It negates the need to hire more people who are specialized in wireless LAN, for instance, or train somebody on a whole different product line," Lindsey said. "It's a reduction of operational expense in a pretty material way."
Meanwhile, Cisco's Unified Wireless Network is just that -- unified wireless through its controller-based platforms and über controller, its Wireless Controller System, which aggregates information from all controllers into a single management platform. Hardware includes some unified network management features, such as switches that can identify rogue APs and disconnect the port to which it is connected.
"This is a marathon, not a sprint," said Jennifer Lin, director of product management in Cisco's wireless networking business unit. "The common thread is moving from products to systems to solutions and really helping our customers understand how the switches and routers and wireless LAN routers come together."
Advances in 802.11n wireless LAN applications will force unified networking adoption
Although wireless technology is not at the point where it can replace wired LANs, its use is growing at a pace that will force admins to find unified network management, according to Stan Schatt, vice president and practice director of ABI Research.
"As we start to get to a point where everyone cares about application and Layer 7 analysis of what's happening on the network, the more tightly you can view the wireline and wireless operations together, the better," he said.
More advanced uses for wireless LANs -- thanks to 802.11n -- are making unified network management more pressing, according to Forrester's Silva.
"When you start pushing the boundaries of using additional services, namely location and voice over wireless network, it's really important to be able to get down to a level of control that's almost like a port level control," Silva said. "The linchpin point at which things become unified is from a management standpoint."
Sean Burke, vice president of network operations at inVentiv Health, a pharmaceutical marketing and sales agency based in Somerset, N.J., said using a Cisco Systems wireless LAN controller has eliminated most of the headaches associated with managing the 70 Cisco access points (APs) in two buildings, in addition to hundreds of ports at all 20 sites.
That doesn't mean, however, that Burke wouldn't like more simplicity and insight into his network, managed by two full-time employees. But as with many IT shops, budget and staff constraints have been prohibitive, he said.
"Management tools are key because of the small size of the team," Burke said. "It would be nice to have some deeper management tools, especially on the wireless side … that more rapidly drill down to the host level to find out exactly where a host is."
Let us know what you think about the story; email: Jessica Scarpati, News Writer