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Looking at the new Magic Quadrant for wireless LAN infrastructure

The Magic Quadrant for Wireless LAN infrastructure has shifted its focus this year. Basic architecture for access point-to-client communication is just a baseline requirement now. Vendors must now differentiate themselves with wireless LAN management, wireless LAN security and other network service layer technologies.

Basic network architecture is no longer the key differentiator for the wireless LAN market, according to Gartner.

In the research firm's newest Magic Quadrant for Wireless LAN infrastructure, network services such as wireless LAN management and security are becoming more important in setting vendors apart, especially as enterprises start to blur the lines at the access layer between wired and wireless networks.

"We're moving away from communication from the client to the access point [as the major focus], to also include network application services as part of the overall wireless experience -- things like network management, security, client forensics, video, location-based services and context-aware capabilities," said Tim Zimmerman, principal analyst at Gartner. "Everyone provides a basic foundation of communication between clients and the infrastructure."

As a result of this broadening of criteria, this year's Magic Quadrant for Wireless LAN infrastructure looks quite a bit different from those of previous years. The leaders in this year's quadrant are the same familiar faces: Cisco Systems, Aruba Networks and Motorola. The major difference is where the biggest crowd can be found: Last year, there was a glut of vendors among the niche players; this year, the visionaries' category has the crowd.

Last year, Gartner tagged Meru Networks, HP ProCurve and Enterasys/Siemens as visionaries. This year, Gartner elevated 3Com, Ruckus Wireless and Aerohive Networks into the visionary space and shifted ProCurve over to the challenger quadrant. The herd of niche players has been thinned to just four vendors: Trapeze Networks, Bluesocket, Xirrus and D-Link Systems.

The Magic Quadrant for Wireless LAN Infrastructure is part of Gartner's series of magic quadrant market assessments that look at vendors in a number of technology segments. Gartner uses the quadrant to break up a market into four general groups: leaders, visionaries, challengers and niche players. Gartner places vendors into these categories based on how they stack up against two major evaluation criteria: completeness of vision, which is generally a measure of the vendor's technology and roadmap; and ability to execute, which is a measure of a company's ability to market, sell, deliver and support its product. Leaders score well in both these categories. Niche players have low scores in both. Visionaries get high marks for their vision, and challengers get high marks for their ability to execute.

Wireless LAN management and wireless LAN security make the difference for users

The change in criteria in this round of the Magic Quadrant for wireless LAN results from the idea that enterprises must now define the kinds of services they will have for their wireless LAN infrastructure, as these will have a bearing on which vendors will best serve them, Zimmerman said.

Jimmy Graham, IT director for Liberty University, defined video over wireless LAN as the key requirement for his network when he was evaluating vendors recently. He wanted to shift the dorms at his school to an all-wireless LAN network. But since the school's satellite television services were delivered to the dorms via IPTV, he needed a wireless LAN that could handle video.

"We would like to be able to offer the same services over wireless that we did over wired," Graham said. "Aruba's ability to do IPTV over wireless was a big deal to us."

Vendors will look to these services to differentiate themselves in order to gain market share.

"The differentiation is now occurring at this network services layer," Zimmerman said, "and I anticipate that as the price of access points continues to drop, that's an area where vendors will continue to look for maintaining and growing their revenues."

More on the Magic Quadrant for wireless LAN infrastructure and the trends that are reflected in it.
Read our report on Gartner's previous Magic Quadrant for Wireless LAN Infrastructure, which was published in December 2008.

Wireless LAN managment will merge with wired network management.

Vendors are expanding their location-based services offerings over wireless LAN.

Aruba's continued development of the vendor-agnostic AirWave wireless LAN management software is a key example of this differentiation, he said, as is its development of network security capabilities such as its wireless firewall. Cisco's development of location-based services and Motorola's focus on its AirDefense security capabilities have also set them apart, he added.

Magic Quadrant for wireless LAN infrastructure also emphasizes unified wired and wireless

Many enterprises are also pursuing the ability to blend wired and wireless LAN into a single access layer of connectivity, making a vendor's ability to integrate its wireless LAN technology with wired network infrastructure critical, Zimmerman said.

"We [believe] that as the market continues to develop the access layer, it will continue to converge, so that wired and wireless connectivity will be viewed pretty much the same by end users," he said. "We're seeing enterprises looking at that and wanting a single security policy, a single guest access policy, a single network application, and not having to have separate and distinct access layer solutions."

This trend gives vendors like Cisco, ProCurve, 3Com and Enterasys a strong advantage. It also explains why Motorola has announced strategic partnerships with Extreme Networks and Brocade that go beyond simple OEM sales agreements and delve into the co-development of technology.

A unified wired and wireless network strategy was the driving factor behind network manager Tim Ryan's decision to go with HP ProCurve as a wireless LAN vendor at the City College of San Francisco.

Ryan went through a lengthy RFP process to choose ProCurve as the vendor for his wired campus LAN, installing 150 switches and 10,000 ports across the school. When the time came to select a WLAN vendor to provide about 75 Wi-Fi hotspots, ProCurve was the logical choice. Using one vendor for both wired and wireless answered a lot of questions about integration and offered some simplicity of management, he said.

"We didn't want to have integration issues.The switch vendors are already doing a lot of work with authentication on their edge switches. They're pushing that out further and further to the edge," Ryan said. "We didn't feel it was worth our time to take a totally separate view and separate vendor to do the same thing [in our wireless LAN]." "For us, wireless is all about authentication," he said. "We can put up radios and deal with RF issues … but it's actually the authentication and some kind of accountability mechanism that's important. We didn't want to introduce another vendor that was doing roughly the same thing and end up with either finger-pointing or incompatibility."

The ability to consolidate wired and wireless to one vendor for ease of implementation was especially critical to Ryan because he doesn't have the option of adding new staff when he adds new technology. When he added 2,000 new IP phones, he needed to manage them with the same headcount. Adding a new wireless network presented the same squeeze on his staff.

"So [with] everything we do," he said, "we always have to be cognizant of how easy it is going to be to manage over time."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Shamus McGillicuddy, News Editor

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