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Amid shakeup, WLAN switch sales booming

New research says the wireless LAN switch market grew substantially in 2004, but companies should brace for major changes in the market landscape.

According to the results of a new In-Stat/MDR research report, enterprises' usage of wireless LAN switches and less-expensive "thin" access points is on the rise. But a potential shakeup in the market landscape could ensue as the startups that launched the technologies struggle for survival.

The high-tech market research firm predicts that the number of WLAN switches shipped will increase from roughly 36,000 units in 2004 to approximately 242,500 units in 2009.

However, during that time frame separate WLAN switches, or overlay switches, are expected to be replaced by wired Ethernet switches with built-in wireless switch functionalities.

Sam Lucero, research analyst with the Scottsdale, Ariz.-based research firm, said this new type of switch will be offered by many of the traditional networking vendors, such as Cisco Systems Inc., Extreme Networks Inc. and Foundry Networks Inc.

Lucero said management complexity and the difficulty devices often have when roaming between access points (APs) have led to a new model in which a WLAN switch controls what are called thin APs.

In that paradigm, much of the Media Access Control Layer intelligence -- the moving of data packets from one network interface card (NIC) to another -- is handled in the central WLAN switch itself, and the AP becomes a stripped down wireless port. In essence, WLAN switches enable a more centralized management of wireless networks and the use of thin -- or independent -- APs. Thin APs are less expensive than "fat" APs because they offer less built-in intelligence.

Lucero said this shift presents difficulties for startups, such as Aruba Wireless Networks and Trapeze Networks Inc., which first brought wireless switches to the market several years ago. Airespace Inc. was another early vendor in that space, but Lucero said its recent acquisition has created quite a stir.

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Read our exclusive on Cisco's acquisition of Airespace.

Learn more about the growing WLAN market.

"Particularly with Cisco's purchase of Airespace, the WLAN model for enterprise networks has received a wide degree of validation among traditional networking firms," Lucero said. "That means other firms are interested in providing that kind of functionality in their WLAN offerings, too."

Lucero said as more vendors add WLAN management to wired Ethernet switches, the price differential between a wired Ethernet switch with WLAN management functionality and a switch sans the functionality could shrink to the point where most companies will be able to afford Ethernet switches capable of managing APs.

According to Lucero, enterprise customers with large deployments should gravitate toward the WLAN switch deployment model for the most cost-effective option. It will soon become clearer whether startup vendors will survive, Lucero said, but for now customers should not feel the need to hold out for the market to mature, as he considers it a safe investment to buy now.

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