Enterprise WLANs: The kinder, gentler shakeout

Enterprise WLANs: The kinder, gentler shakeout

As wireless LAN start-up after WLAN start-up emerged to take on the enterprise over the past 18 months, observers realized that a few years down the line, they wouldn't all be around. There was simply a limit to the number of companies the market would support regardless of quality of product, vision and leadership. But, the growing remake of companies from systems providers to IP and component providers looks to be a "kinder, gentler" shakeout that benefits everyone.

As the enterprise WLAN market emerged, I was constantly comparing its progress with the Layer 3 switching events of the late 1990s. The reasons were twofold: First, the introduction of that technology was the last "seismic shift" in the enterprise prior to WLAN, and second, today's WLAN companies are virtual reincarnations of some of the leading switching start-ups of the '90s. (Key past employees of switching trailblazers Alteon, Extreme Networks Inc., Foundry Networks and others often are a core part of today's WLAN vendors such as AirFlow Networks, Aruba Wireless Networks and Trapeze Networks, to name a few.)

In one real sense, though, that's where the similarity with the LAN switching period ends. It was hard enough then to sell switches into an arguably less solidly Cisco world. It's more difficult with WLAN systems.

Even putting aside Cisco's iron grip on accounts that has only intensified in the intervening years, WLAN has a fundamental handicap. Where each LAN switch was its own technological island - and different brands, models and even generations could be intermixed - WLAN systems are, well, systems.

There are always at least two pieces: the distributed radio and the WLAN switch. Most deployments will require many distributed radios and likely multiple switches. Buying a WLAN system is to buying a LAN switch as marriage is to dating. It's a big commitment and not one easily changed without severe consequences.

Given the nature of wireless this aspect is not going to change. And, given the nature of the commitment, and the knowledge that a shakeout inevitably occurs, it's not surprising that corporations are reluctant to entrust their future to any company not yet 2 years old. From the vendor's perspective, it's a tough task to imagine matching the presence and support of companies such as Alcatel, Cisco and Nortel.

Thus, companies such as Engim (Inc.), about which I wrote last time, decided to not even go down that road but rather to focus on developing IP and building components that the aforementioned companies would integrate into products.

The day after that piece appeared, AirFlow decided it, too, could bring more value by focusing on its technology. CEO Bob Machlin noted that "... we made a strategic decision to partner with WLAN chip and system vendors - instead of fighting against them - to facilitate the growth of VoWLAN."

If this trend is picking up now, it's only right to give a nod to the trendsetter: Agere. Two years ago, it decided selling components to vendors was more important than competing against them in the retail space.

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