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Intelligent switches enable WLAN growth

A new breed of wireless switch technology is helping wireless LAN managers alleviate headaches and scale networks more efficiently. The New York Institute of Technology is using switches from Symbol Technologies to centralize management of a wireless service that spans three campuses.

Symbol Technologies Inc. is an old hand at wireless LANs, having deployed the technology in warehouses and logistics firms before 802.11b was glimmer in the IEEE's eye. Today, the Holtsville, N.Y.-based company is leading the march toward a whole new approach to wireless LAN architecture with its WLAN switch products.

As wireless LAN deployments grow in size, they also become harder to manage. Configuring each switch on its own has proved to be a management headache.

Startups such as ReefEdge Inc. and Bluesocket Inc. have developed wireless gateway products that help to centralize management. Symbol took a different approach that has already begun to catch on.

A different approach
Symbol's Mobius Axon Wireless Switch
In November of last year, Symbol launched its Mobius Axon Wireless Switch, enabling as many as 30 access points to plug into each switch. Because the intelligence is in the switch instead of the access point, network managers can centralize management, have a broader range of functions, and more easily deploy, grow and run wireless networks, said Ray Martino, vice president of network products for Symbol.

When the Old Westbury, N.Y.-based New York Institute of Technology wanted to expand its wireless network to more campuses, it needed to centralize the management of the system, said Brian Maroldo, technical director of the office of information technology at NYIT.

The school already had a wireless LAN on one campus that was used heavily by its resident students, and it wanted to roll out the service at its other two campuses as well.

The problem, Maroldo said, was that he has an IT staff of three, all of whom are based on a single campus. Should there be a problem with the access points located on one of the two campuses, it would take far too long to get there.

With Symbol's switched approach, the access points are plugged into centralized switches. Symbol's switch can either act as a switch or be placed behind an existing switch in the network. Access points can be installed by untrained staff and then configured remotely, saving Maroldo time and precious resources.

The system is also scalable. He said that he only needs to add one new switch for every 30 access points. The access points are also cheaper because they are stripped of their intelligence, making it more cost effective to grow the network.

Universities often have trouble with students installing their own rogue access points, creating security holes in the system. With the switched approach, unless an access point is tied into a switch and recognized by the system, it won't work. Maroldo said that feature has helped him keep rogue access points under control.

As wireless LAN technology develops, intelligence is likely to move away from the access points and further into the network, said Chris Kozup, program director with the Stamford, Conn.-based research firm Meta Group. A number of other vendors have taken up the switched approach, including Trapeze Networks Inc., Aruba Networks Inc. and Nortel Networks Corp.

While the switched approach has the promise to add increased functionality, Kozup said it is still new and there are some features missing. For example, Symbol's wireless switch does not have the ability to terminate a virtual private network (VPN); that must occur elsewhere in the network.

Even though switching helps to centralize network management, IT administrators are still left managing switches in multiple locations. Installing a switch in every location may seem like overkill, especially if some spots only have a handful of access points.

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