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Cisco leads WLAN market, despite technology similarities

A Forrester Research study shows that although most WLAN vendors are offering similar products, Cisco clearly leads the pack in terms of sales.

Though most wireless LAN (WLAN) technology is similar, equipment from Cisco Systems Inc. is still the top dog among leading vendors, according to a recent study by Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research Inc.

In an intensive evaluation of the seven top WLAN system vendors, Cisco was the clear victor, according to Ellen Daley, principal analyst and author of "The Forrester Wave: WLAN Solutions, Q4 2005."

"Cisco is above everyone," Daley said. "They're the one to catch, but they're going to be hard to catch."

According to Daley, WLAN vendors Cisco Systems Inc., Aruba Networks, Trapeze Networks, 3Com Corp., Nortel Networks Ltd., Symbol Technologies and Hewlett-Packard's ProCurve division were judged in three categories: strategy, current offerings and market presence. Those categories were then broken down into 44 sub-categories, Daley said.

The study's evaluation criteria were based on past research, user-need assessments, and vendor and expert interviews, Daley said. From there, Forrester evaluated the strengths and weaknesses of each of the seven vendors in those categories.

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In the study, Daley wrote: "The WLAN market is still maturing, both in standards and vendor consolidation. However, vendor products today offer relatively similar capabilities and value to enterprises. The real differentiation among vendors is their overall strategy, particularly their vision and ability to offer a wired/wireless portfolio. The leading vendors have a clear wired/wireless integration story. In contrast, many of the followers are still hedging their bets by OEMing components."

Overall, Cisco ranked highest, Daley said, but was followed closely by Aruba, Trapeze and Nortel.

"Cisco not only has the largest market presence -- about 70% of all WLAN deployments use Cisco gear -- but it also has the most complete vision of WLANs and their integration with wired networks," Daley wrote. "Aruba and Trapeze are fast followers in technology, but both have small market presence compared with Cisco."

Daley said Aruba, however, has a particular focus on security, with built-in features like firewalls, and is better suited for companies seeking added protection. Trapeze, she said, has a rich OEM business, with 3Com and Nortel both using Trapeze components.

Symbol and 3Com, she said, also have strong, competitive offerings.

And though ProCurve doesn't have a WLAN switch available yet, it is warming up. Daley said the company has a growing wired install base and offers a reasonably priced Cisco alternative.

"This wired base provides ProCurve an opportunity to sell WLAN products easily to wired switching clients, once it [announces the release]," she said. Daley added a ProCurve product launch is expected in early 2006 and will make the company "something to look out for."

Cisco's success, Daley said, is based partly on the company's acquisition of Airspace last year, which was highly respected and known for having top-notch technology. That purchase rounded out the San Jose, Calif.-based vendor's portfolio. Plus, Cisco's strong presence makes it a no-brainer for most businesses to introduce the company's products into their network solutions.

Regardless of where each vendor ranked, Daley said most offer similar products.

"From a technology perspective, there are not huge differences," she said. "There's not a wide variation in the WLAN solution."

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