Cisco Blesses Wireless-N

Cisco Systems Tuesday answered one of the biggest questions surrounding the 802.11n high-speed wireless standard by unveiling plans to ship draft-based products within the next two months.

Cisco plans in October to begin shipping its new Aironet 1250 Series access point, the vendor's first enterprise-grade 802.11n equipment. The technology, developed in-house, is based on the 2.0 draft version of 802.11n and has received certification by the Wi-Fi Alliance, said Ben Gibson, director of mobility solutions at Cisco, San Jose, Calif.

Cisco also plans to launch a new high-density WLAN controller module for its Catalyst 6500 switches and new Catalyst switches to meet the increased power needs of the new access point, he said.

Industry observers had been buzzing over whether or not the wireless market leader would join several of its peers in rolling out gear based on the draft specification or wait for final ratification by the IEEE standards body. Probably the biggest question of all is how much longer the industry will have to wait for the much-delayed standard to be ratified. Ratification is now expected in the latter half of 2008.

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"It's an area Cisco has been keeping close tabs on. We've heard from our channel partners and customers that segments of the market are starting to see more demand for 802.11n," Gibson said. The introduction of more 802.11n-capable silicon and more mobile devices shipping with draft 2.0-compatible radios helped spur Cisco's decision to roll 802.11n equipment out ahead of ratification, Gibson said.

Most customers up to this point have been watching 802.11n but haven't pulled the trigger on sales, as most of the products available now are consumer-grade, said Jeffrey Goldberg, president of Washington Computer Services, a New York solution provider that works primarily with government and education accounts. Customers have also been hesitant to buy pre-standard gear, he said.

"If Cisco comes out and blesses it, now that means that it is real and now they can buy it," Goldberg said.

Goldberg said 802.11n will soon become the norm in WLAN rollouts.

"I fully expect that within two years you will be hard-pressed to find an 802.11b/g NIC, or an access point, bridge or wireless router for that matter, that doesn't do 802.11n," he said.

In general, 802.11n wireless networking promises faster speeds and farther range. Cisco's new access point includes modular slots for two radios, providing up to 600 Mbps of throughput, 300 Mbps per radio. Real-life speeds are expected to be roughly half of that, Gibson said. That would still far outstrip today's maximum wireless speeds of 54 Mbps.

NEXT: Infrastructure upgrades come with the territory

To get the most out of the new gear, customers will likely need to make some infrastructure upgrades, said Cisco and solution provider executives.

While existing Cisco WLAN controllers are 802.11n-ready, the new Aironet 1250 access points require Gigabit Ethernet connections and backhaul for top-level performance, Gibson said. In addition, the new access points will draw more power than their predecessors, meaning typical Power over Ethernet switch ports will not be sufficient, he added.

"For customers that want higher performance and higher reliability, it is a wireless and a wired decision," Gibson said.

It's a reality that solution providers will have to prepare their customers for, said Jeff Nelson, vice president of wireless business development at NetVersant Solutions, a Cisco partner in Houston.

"We're making sure they know it's an architecture decision, not just speed," Nelson said. "If they already have a Cisco controller-based architecture, they can scale up without replacing the hardware, but they would have to look at their edge switches."

To support 802.11n users, Cisco is rolling out new infrastructure in addition to the new access point. The vendor is extending the capacity of its Wireless Service Module for Catalyst 6500 switches. The system is now supports 8 Gbps per card, scalable to 48 Gbps per switch.

In addition, Cisco within the next six months plans to boost the capabilities of select Catalyst 3750, 4500 and 6500 switches to provide single-port power for an Aironet 1250 access point. The switches would eliminate the need for a separate power injector.

"We'll have the ability on a port-by-port basis to provide auto-sensing. The switch will identify that the power requirement is higher and partition power to that port and out to that access point," Gibson said.

Cisco is also rolling out Unified Wireless Network 4.2, an upgrade to its WLAN software that adds enhanced services around wireless mesh, access point monitoring and migration tools and unified wired/wireless guest access.

For solution providers, Cisco will be rolling out a full suite of training, some by October, said Alex Thurber, senior director of technology go-to-market strategy for worldwide channels at Cisco. The vendor is also updating its Advanced Wireless LAN specialization, which likely will be ready for Cisco's Partner Summit channel conference next year, Thurber said.

"It's all about preparation: preparing the site and preparing the customer," Thurber said. "This is great for partners because it leads to lots of professional service opportunities."

Each Aironet 1250 will support an average of 15 to 20 users depending on usage, though they can scale much higher, Gibson said, declining to disclose which chipset the access point is based on. It carries a list price of $1,299. Cisco also will be offering bundles that include the new access points, WLAN controllers and switches.

Several vendors are also staking claims in the 802.11n market, particularly since the Wi-Fi Alliance began certifying equipment based on the draft 2.0 version of the standard this summer.

Trapeze Networks in the fourth quarter plans to ship its Mobility Point-432 enterprise 802.11n access point. Trapeze customers will be able to power the new access points via existing 802.3af Power over Ethernet ports by connecting two ports to each access point.

Aruba Networks is expected to unveil at least one 802.11n product later this month, though it is unclear whether plans will be delyed by a lawsuit filed against the vendor by Motorola last month. Vendors such as D-Link, Cisco's Linksys division and Netgear are already shipping 802.11n products for SOHO and small business customers.