Cheap software will wipe out wireless switches

Cheap software will wipe out wireless switches

As if wireless switch makers didn't have enough troubles, there's competition coming up from below, in the form of a US$3,000 software product whose vendors reckon it can pretty much do the job of wireless switches costing US$20,000 or more.

WINc Manager 2.0, launched last week by tiny software vendor Cirond Corp., works with cheap commodity access points, and increases the flexibility of a Wi-Fi network by adding an extra useable channel.

"The thin AP is going to go away, because the math doesn't work," says Nicholas Miller, chief executive of Cirond, a company whose main claim to fame so far has been the WINc and Pocket WINc clients, with which laptop and PDA users find wireless networks. Instead of complicated switches that manage specialized access points, users want software to build on the strengths of commodity Wi-Fi equipment, he said, describing the wave of wireless switches as a distortion of the market to meet the needs of venture capitalists.

WINc Manager promises to do pretty much everything, says Miller. It coordinates the way APs use the wireless spectrum, and adds an extra channel without straying beyond the official Wi-Fi standard (see this White Paper). It can locate clients -- and rogue access points -- to within two meters, and bolster WEP security (still the base level in most installed equipment) to be as good as WPA.

It also uses its location-sensitivity, to secure the building against drive-by Wi-Fi hacking, by simply refusing connections from anyone whose coordinates are outside the building. The system can place access points on a map of the building, and tune the APs' radios to get best coverage.

So what's the catch? Well, it's pretty much unproven, with no published case studies (and we haven't tried it ourselves yet). It also is very much a bottom-up system, designed for small and medium-sized outfits, though Miller believes that is the sweet spot of the market at the moment, since even big organizations tend to put in small Wi-Fi networks, as an adjunct to their wired LAN.

It doesn't allow full roaming. All the APs have to be on the same subnet, but again Miller reckons that is a luxury most of us can still do without. And he promises to fix it later this year.

The other drawback, in the eyes of the established Wi-Fi industry, is Cirond's size. "They're a toenail biter," said Alan Cohen, vice president of marketing at Airespace. Cirond is in the process of establishing itself, and its turnover is at "noise" level. During the last year, it was bought by Exmailit, a company that planned to offer email to snail-mail services, but has now renamed itself as Cirond Corporation.

But the underlying premise -- that wireless LAN management is fundamentally a software problem, deserves to be tried out. Switch vendors, including Airespace Inc., always claim their intellectual property is in their software, not their hardware.

And, as the creator of the popular Pocket WINc tool, Cirond has some expertise in Wi-Fi software, and enough credibility to make this worth checking out.

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