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Cisco introduces unified LAN, wireless mesh

Cisco made truth of the rumors yesterday, introducing new WLAN products and spinning its own web of wireless mesh.

After months of swirling rumors, Cisco Systems Inc. made two major plays that will provide consistent connectivity inside and outside the office. The moves also complete Cisco's integration of technologies acquired by the networking behemoth when it purchased wireless vendor Airespace earlier this year.

Cisco yesterday unveiled two products for large organizations and also launched its first-ever venture into the wireless mesh space for citywide Wi-Fi deployments.

Ben Gibson, a marketing director with San Jose, Calif.-based Cisco, said the two releases merge indoor and outdoor connectivity. He said both were a natural progression in the evolution of wireless LANs.

Cisco's new introductions, the Cisco Wireless Service Module for the Catalyst 6500 Series switch and the Cisco Wireless LAN Controller Module for the Integrated Services Router family, marry high-performance wired networking software with secure wireless LAN technologies. According to Gibson, the products give businesses centralized management over the entire wide area network.

The new products allow companies to manage thousands of access points from one location and integrate them into the Cisco's Network Admission Control framework.

Craig Mathias, principal with Ashland, Mass.-based advisory firm Farpoint Group, said the announcement extends a unified network trend that Cisco started.

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"Clearly, this is the trend," he said. "Cisco was the first company to introduce it and we expect most of the leading wireless LAN vendors to follow [with similar announcements]."

Mathias said network managers no longer want to consider their wireless and wired networks as different beasts, and this move by Cisco addresses that demand.

"We need to start thinking of just the LAN, not the wireless LAN or the wired LAN, but the LAN," he said. "The wireless LAN is no longer something that hangs off the edge of the network; it is the edge and needs to be treated accordingly."

In line with the wireless network announcement, Cisco yesterday also unveiled its first foray into citywide Wi-Fi connections with wireless mesh. Two cities -- Dayton, Ohio, and Lebanon, Oregon -- have deployed Cisco's wireless mesh. In Dayton, one square mile is covered, while the city plans to cover 55 square miles by next year.

In Lebanon, a small town with a population of 13,000, Cisco rolled out Wi-Fi mesh to cover about 40% of its area. The city also plans to test the mesh network in police cars and public works vehicles to allow city employees to connect wirelessly to the network.

Gibson said the mesh network is like a "spider web of wireless interconnectivity" that can "paint a large area with coverage."

The mesh system uses an Adaptive Wireless Path Protocol, which allows remote access points to select the best data path among other points within the coverage area. As new access points are added, each self-adjusts to ensure network capability.

"I call it an organic solution," Gibson said. "It adjusts and deals with all of the issues it faces outdoors."

The mesh systems use the Cisco Aironet 1500 Series access points, which are rugged enough to sit on rooftops, light posts and utility poles -- essentially anywhere with a power source. It automatically sets up and configures itself, and is self-healing in case of power loss or other interruptions, Gibson said.

"We need to start thinking of just the LAN, not the wireless LAN or the wired LAN, but the LAN."
Craig Mathias
PrincipalFarpoint Group
The 1500 also uses two radios, one dedicated to point-to-point communication, the other uses all data channels to minimize radio frequency interference. The dual-radio design access points can segment the network for different users, such as police, fire, municipal services and others, who can seamlessly and securely get back into the indoor network.

Gibson said the wireless mesh network could also be a viable tool for large companies and organizations. Using the Cisco campus as an example, he said a mesh network could connect the campus' more than 30 buildings and give employees seamless connectivity inside and outside.

Mathias agreed. "There are definitely applications for enterprise use, and a campus setting is a perfect example. You want seamless connectivity from one end to the other."

Wireless mesh is another key trend, Mathias said, and a relatively inexpensive way to give Wi-Fi access over a large area.

"Wi-Fi has become part of the culture. It's around forever," he said. "There's nothing on the horizon that could replace Wi-Fi."

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