Mixing oil and water is a tricky endeavour. Likewise, linking wired and wireless network management is not so simple. But with WLAN and security technologies continuing to evolve, incorporating the two technologies is becoming much easier, although the trend is still in its infancy.
Advances in wireless switches are helping make it all happen. With wireless technologies increasing in popularity, vendors are developing switches that integrate wired and wireless networking management.
Improvements in switch technology are showing up on the latest gaggle of gear by way of authentication, encryption, policy, RF planning and management.
"We are starting to put the hook between the two worlds: wired and wireless," Cisco consulting engineer, Adam Radford, said.
Some of the hooks, he said, included discovery devices on the network that could detect and mitigate rogue access points.
From management functionality in routers to wireless functionality in high-end switches, the nuts and bolts of the network infrastrucutre are becoming intelligent.
Globally, wireless LANs continue to gain ground across most product categories and in most geographic regions, according to Infonetics Research.
IDC said the overall Australian WLAN market had more than doubled in 2004.
Integrating management of wired and wireless LANs has become a top priority for many network managers, according to analysts. And while smaller vendors started developing the double functionality several years ago, the top end of town is now following suit in the switch department.
And expect to see more action in the market, IDC associate analyst for telecommunications, Shing Quah, said.
Developments in switch land
"There will be increased competition in the wireless switch space as SME vendors look to move up the value chain," Quah said. "WLAN deployments are increasingly part of the overall network infrastructure strategy, and not merely as a standalone wireless solution."
Cisco's January 2005 acquisition of wireless switch vendor, Airespace, shook up the market, according to Quah. "The Airespace acquisition not only completes Cisco's WLAN offerings for its medium enterprises, it has also prompted Cisco's staunch rivals Nortel and Alcatel to rethink their WLAN strategy," she said.
"Alcatel subsequently announced an OEM deal with Aruba Networks, followed by Nortel's announcement of their OEM partnership with Trapeze Networks."
Furthermore, shipments of wireless switches skyrocketed in 2004, particularly as the wireless switch/thin access point architecture took centre stage in enterprise WLAN deployments, Quah said.
Certainly, the wireless switch/thin access point architecture had found some solid footing, she said.
"Airespace's rapid growth in the WLAN market through its OEM partnerships with Nortel, Alcatel and NEC - and its subsequent acquisition in January by Cisco - attests to the manageability, security and reduced TCO promised by the wireless/thin access point architecture," Quah said.
The vendor strategies confirmed the market was leaning towards a centralised WLAN infrastructure with increased focus on security and manageability, scalability while maintaining a low TCO, she said.
Beefed up security and management functionality on switches was speeding the integration process along, Alcatel country manager for network infrastructure, Simon Rachowski, said.
Alcatel came out of the gates with a host of WLAN switches, the OmniAccess line, which extends security and management capabilities of wired networks to WLANs. The technology let IT administrators integrate LAN-based management tools from other vendors and Alcatel's OmniVista software with Wi-Fi networks, Rachowski said.
New security features include attack containment capabilities and centralised encryption for 802.11i firewalls. Essentially, the switches can assign security and access rights on a per-user basis and have "follow-me" capabilities that track the user and apply those services no matter where in the network the user connects.
The switches were ideally suited for use in the enterprise campus, building and branch office environments, Rachowski said. There was a growing need to integrate the wired and wireless infrastructure in medium to large enterprises, he said.
"Integrating the management and security functions of wired and wireless LANs is easing the network manager's burden of having to maintain multiple vendors' solutions," Rachowski said.
Offering a secure path to an integrated network with common controls and a comprehensive approach to dealing with hostile entities are in demand in enterprise networks, according to analysts. Indeed, the wireless network must deliver the same level of reliability and security as wired networks, Rachowski said.
"The wireless infrastructure is not much different than the wired environment," he said. "They have the same needs and requirements. Security, availability and simplified management are key drivers."
The channel needed to keep up in the integration game, Rachowski said.
"As special LAN technologies emerge, the channel has to transition from integrators of boxes into more advanced integration partners," he said. "Medium to large enterprises are looking for an infrastructure with advanced features, so there is an opportunity for resellers to move from doing simple LAN infrastructures to integrating wired and wireless functionality."
The ability to automate intrusion detection and rogue devices in the network was an example of a key security requirement "If we can demonstrate the new infrastructure behaves the same way as the wired one, then the sale becomes much easier." 3Com network consultant, Andrew Hindmarch, said the latest wireless switch technology gave the IT administrator the ability to manage the environment as one entity rather than managing separate access points.
Administering standalone access points used to require attending each one, which was time consuming and costly, he said.
"There are big benefits to having a centralised wireless switch solution." Hindmarch said. "You can monitor the entire RF environment, tell the switch what's going on, track users within the environment, locate rogue access points, triangulate the rogue and then plot it on a map." There was no shortage of reseller opportunities, he said. Partners could integrate centralised management software and upload CAD diagrams into the software so a customer can track coverage.
"Spillage, power levels required APs, as well as attenuation of walls, windows and doors," he said.
Partners can configure the switches to load balance and for redundancy. They could also offer centralised security, focus on ease of management offer true mobility with seamless roaming, Hindmarch said.
"As companies start to merge their data, voice and video into one converged network, there is a need for high-availability switching, security and intelligence to keep the network safe and running at optimal levels," Hindmarch said.
Securing the network
With the likely wider adoption of 802.11b devices in the near future, and with voice over Wi-Fi the next big wave, enterprises needed to have both a wired and wireless security plan, SonicWall country manager, Tim Dickinson, said.
"With known viruses already existing for VoIP networks, the industry needs to be ready now from a security viewpoint before it adds wireless to this new mix," he said.
Given that interest in, and sales of, wireless products are growing at a record rate - particularly at the SMB level - adopting a wired and wireless security approach has never been more important, Dickinson said.
Integrated environments were in heavy demand in the finance, health and retail markets, he said.
"Customers are demanding single security: one vendor appliance that can manage all of their wired and wireless requirements," Dickinson said. The SonicWall distributed wireless solution offers centralised WLAN management, he said. "It will detect non-authorised access points in a boardroom or under the potted plant," Dickinson said.
It also addresses some of the top WLAN security challenges. Boosted wireless security, performance and monitoring functionality is also cropping up on Netgear's latest WLAN switches. It is integrating RF management technology into its WLAN switches. The company has already added the RF feature to its business class range of access points.
When used in concert with its AutoCell access points, the switches let administrators centrally manage the WLAN from a single location with the ability to push policy and setting to all managed access points in the network, Netgear's director of partnerships and services, Ryan Parker, said.
"The solution enhances security by powering up and powering down access point coverage automatically and only transmitting to the furthest client, reducing any opportunity for electronic eavesdropping," he said.
The latest technology made network management much easier and cheaper, with predicted savings of at least 50 per cent in capital expenditure and up to 70 per cent on installation and ongoing maintenance costs, Parker said.
Netgear leads the local WLAN market through its shipments to the SME, education and consumer verticals.
Cisco ranks a close second and should increasingly threaten Netgear's reign at the top with deployments and flow on effects from its Victorian DET 9000-access points win.
D-Link sits in third spot, gaining market share quarter over quarter.