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Why are network security vendors offering wireless LAN infrastructure?

Wireless LAN security is a big deal to most enterprises, but is that reason enough to buy your wireless LAN infrastructure and WLAN security from a traditional network security vendor? Security vendors are banking on their access point security capabilities to compete in an already crowded WLAN infrastructure market.

Since the ratification of 802.11n , choosing the right vendor for your wireless local area network (LAN) is no longer about who has the fastest access point (AP) but rather which controller offers the niftiest software features, such as wireless LAN (WLAN) security. But even with their specialty and experience, traditional network security vendors elbowing their way into the WLAN business don't necessarily offer the best solution for every organization.

"This plays better in small and medium businesses," said Steven Schuchart, principal analyst at Current Analysis. "I don't see large enterprises who have money invested in Cisco management, HP management or anything else suddenly going, 'Oh, hey! Look, our security vendor's doing WLAN! I guess we should do [wireless networking] now with them.'"

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Network security vendor Fortinet is the latest network security vendor to introduce its own line of wireless LAN access points, known as FortiAP, promising in its recent announcement to integrate WLAN controller functions into its flagship unified threat management (UTM) appliance, FortiGate.

Last summer, longtime network security vendor SonicWall took a similar dip into the AP pool when it released its own line of wireless LAN access points, SonicPoints. Like Fortinet, SonicWall integrated WLAN controller features into its high-end UTM appliance.

"It is a crowded [market]," acknowledged Anthony James, vice president of product marketing at Fortinet. "We thought we had a unique angle to allow enterprises that are more concerned with [wireless LAN] security to start deploying wireless environments on our platform."

The move will "turn our security appliances into access point management controllers," James said, eliminating the need for existing Fortinet customers to purchase and manage another piece of hardware.

FortiGate's wireless LAN security features will reflect its UTM functions -- including firewalls, antivirus protection and intrusion prevention (IPS) -- as well as the "standard suite" of features, including radio frequency management, channel management, rogue AP detection and self-healing, James added.

"It gives them one console on which to manage both their security infrastructure and their wireless network," he said, "so it makes that multivendor concern of management disappear."

With 802.11n standard, wireless LAN security becomes a niche

The ratification of 802.11n and the availability of low-cost reference designs from wireless chipset makers such as Atheros have made it easier for nontraditional WLAN vendors to get into the market, according to Schuchart, who said users can expect to see similar moves by other vendors.

The savings is going to be in [not having to buy] the controller.
Steven Schuchart
Principal AnalystCurrent Analysis

"You don't have to design this from the ground up," he said. "Now that the 802.11n standardization is done, there's nothing really big on the horizon for Wi-Fi … so the question is: How do you do a competitive differentiation? What makes Fortinet's Wi-Fi better than Cisco's, or whoever's, is all going to be in software features and management."

More established wireless networking vendors also offer security features in their controllers -- including Motorola's latest multivendor WLAN management tool -- but James said Fortinet's decade of focus on security gives it a leg-up on the competition, which has instead focused on connectivity.

"We saw there were some attempted plays by the wireless vendors into security, but [they were] really just touching the surface," he said. "Obviously, security expertise is different from networking expertise. Fortunately for us, networking is ratified by standards bodies … but there is no standard for an IPS."

Existing customers may be most attracted to Fortinet's wireless LAN, security play

At least in the case of Fortinet, existing customers would be the best ones to consider the vendor's new APs, Schuchart said.

"The savings is going to be in [not having to buy] the controller," he said. "If you've got [a FortiGate appliance] and you've got a support contract through Fortinet, all you've got to do is buy APs and … do a software update."

Enterprises that already have large-scale wireless LAN systems with Cisco Systems, Aruba Networks or Motorola gear are unlikely to benefit from or even be attracted to Fortinet's offering, Schuchart said.

"With Fortinet's security background, yeah, they'll probably have a few more [wireless LAN security] features," he said. "But is that really more than what Aruba puts out? I don't know about that."

Indeed, existing Fortinet customers are "the low-hanging fruit" for the initial release, said James, who acknowledged that the network security vendor isn't likely to convert longtime Cisco or Hewlett-Packard ProCurve customers.

"It's not unfamiliar territory for us. In fact, in the security space… that's been our world for the last 10 years," he said. "It's been 'safe' to go with a [vendor like] Check Point or Juniper or Cisco, but … the way we approach that traditionally is to get into the lab and prove [ourselves]."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Jessica Scarpati, News Writer

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