On the horizon: News from 802.11-Planet

Lisa takes a brief peek at some of the new products exhibited at the recent 802.11 Planet conference and discusses emerging trends.

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Lisa Phifer

I recently attended the 802.11-Planet Conference, a symposium and trade show dedicated to wireless LANs. This week's tip takes a brief peek at some of the new products exhibited there and discusses emerging trends.

Distributed monitoring

Wireless sniffers have long been essential tools, but this year there's been much growth in distributed monitoring. AirDefense is perhaps the best known player in this arena, but several new distributed monitoring tools were also seen at this conference:

  • Network Chemistry's Neutrino Distributed 802.11b Sensor captures packets and compiles statistics, feeding aggregated data to a central Fusion management console.

  • AirMagnet's Distributed System leverages AirMagnet's popular desktop scanner to gather data from remote sensors, with a cut-through UI for drill-down analysis.

  • RFGrabber from Wild Packets combines hardware probe appliances with AiroPeek NX software for centralized packet, statistical, and expert analysis.

    These products underline an emerging trend: full-time distributed monitoring appliances that forward crunched data to a central repository to enable cost-effective WLAN surveillance, trouble shooting, and historical analysis. These tools help WLAN administrators keep a continuous watchful eye on war drivers, rogue APs, and other threats.

    WLAN switches

    As described in my last tip, a number of new systems announced over the past six months combine specialized APs with centralized servers that aggregate intelligent processing (I.E., provisioning, dynamic spectrum management, secure roaming, load balancing, QoS).

    During the 802.11-Planet symposium, several vendors got a chance to explain their definition of "WLAN switch." Approaches described in this panel included Symbol's Wireless Switch 5000, Trapeze Networks' Wireless LAN Mobility System, Vivato's PacketSteering Wi-Fi network switches, Legra Systems' WLAN Switching Solution, and Bandspeed's Gypsy Wireless AP Switch architecture. Other switch players exhibiting at this conference included Airespace, Aruba Networks, and Chantry Networks, as well as AP-independent WLAN gateway vendors like Bluesocket, ReefEdge, and Vernier Networks.

    Considerable diversity exists among this lot. Vivato and Bandspeed are more clearly focused on getting more out of allocated spectrum, pushing signal farther and faster. Trapeze and Legra place greater emphasis on coordinated distributed management and policy enforcement. Gateway vendors argue that similar benefits can be reaped by combining your favorite APs, centrally managed gateways, and 802.1q VLAN switching. Time should bring sharper differentiation and consolidation to this emerging market.

    Tri-mode WLANs and other radio advances

    It was no surprise that dual-band/tri-mode (A/B/G) chipsets and products were abundant. Most new radio products on exhibit either already support multiple radio standards or promised to in short order, now that IEEE 802.11g has been ratified.

    In addition, chipset and component vendors like Anadigics, Atheros, Broadcom, Proxim, Solectek, Synad, Texas Instruments, TTPcom, and WiDeFi were showing or announcing next generation technologies that touted innovations like very low power consumption, greatly extended range, single-driver solutions, 802.11i / AES / WPA security, and 802.11e QoS. "Best of Show" awards went to Proxim for its new 802.11g line and WiDeFi for its range-extending technology. Solectek exhibited outdoor radios that reach 10-30 miles, depending upon topology.

    Many other engineering innovations now being announced in reference designs will emerge in OEM/consumer products by next year. Increasingly, consumers will spend less time fretting about whether to pick A or G - product selection will be focused on advanced radio features that deliver not just best-effort coverage, but higher-quality services.

    Voice over wireless

    There is growing buzz about carrying voice traffic over IP WLANs. Several traditional cellular service providers exhibited at this 802.11-centric event, including AT&T Wireless, Nextel, and Verizon. This is telling by itself. Voice carriers are worried about and intrigued by WLANs, trying to find an angle to capitalize on this technology while avoiding voice market erosion.

    Two symposium sessions addressed this topic. In "Evolving Voice over Wireless LAN Solutions: Quantifying the Impact," speakers considered likely growth in VoWLAN handsets, network infrastructure, and services, and how the need to carry voice will impact radio features and drive convergence between wireless LANs and WANs. Another session, "VoIP over Wi-Fi: What's legal, what's not, and why telephone companies don't like it," examined commercial implementations of VoWLAN in large enterprises.

    WLAN vendors are poised to tap this new revenue stream, hoping that voice will be the killer app for Wi-Fi. The main question seems to be "If we build it, will they come?" as we all speculate about who will adopt VoWLAN, when, and whether concerns over quality of service, ubiquity, and seamless roaming can be satisfactorily addressed.

    Secure roaming

    On last point, enter companies like PCTEL and Birdstep. PCTEL's Segue Roaming Client provides seamless access and roaming capabilities that span 802.11 and cellular data networks. Birdstep's Intelligent Mobile IP Client provides secure, continuous mobile connectivity across wired and wireless LANs and WANs. Products like these address roaming on data networks, not voice, but certainly this will be an important enabler for VoWLAN.

    In "Best Practices For Secure Wireless Roaming," speakers from Cranite Systems and NetMotion Wireless described technologies used to enable secure roaming and best practices to accomplish this objective. Roaming within multi-vendor WLANs will be assisted by the 802.11f Inter-Access Point Protocol, but roaming across networks, from LAN to WAN, requires link-independent solutions. This area will remain a hotbed of innovation as "wireless VPN" vendors discover and overcome obstacles that impede seamless, secure roaming.

    Conclusion

    These are just a few of the dozens of hot topics and new products I encountered during my week at the 802.11-Planet Conference. So much to see, so little time! My apologies those whom I didn't have time to hear or space to mention. But hopefully I have given readers a brief glimpse into what's coming up next in this fast-paced world of WLANs.

    Do you have comments about this article, or suggestions for Lisa to write about in future columns? Let us know!

  • This was first published in July 2003

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