Dumb Wi-Fi cleans up cabling

Symbol's new wireless LAN uses dumb access points and a smart switch with power delivered through Ethernet to cut down on cabling

Symbol Technologies, a manufacturer of mobile and wireless devices for corporate applications, has has developed a product which it believes should make wireless LANs cheaper to run in offices. Analyst opinion agrees that Mobius is a good architecture for enterprise-style WLANs, and public access points, but Symbol's price comparisons are open to question, and the company does not yet have channels into the general office market. Mobius is a departure from existing wireless LAN technology, because the intelligence in the network is integrated into the network core, leaving the wireless access point as a dumb device that just handles up to layer 2 of the network model -- that is, the Data Link layer, which is responsible for the error-free movement of data between network nodes. (Layer 1 is the physical cabling). "We don't think intelligence belongs in ceiling-mounted devices," said Ray Martino, vice-president of network products at Symbol. "Access points have grown into a significant piece of network gear, deployed through your ceiling. We have centralised the MAC [media access control] and made the access point just a radio." Traffic through the access points (or "ports" as Symbol calls them) is separated from other network traffic using VLANs (virtual LANs) so that all wireless traffic goes through a dedicated switch attached to the network core. The switch is a 1U rackmount box which applies security features such as authentication and encryption, as well as DHCP, quality of service, weighted fair queueing (WFQ) and load balancing, to the wireless traffic. The access port is a circular unit, much like a smoke detector, designed to sit above ceiling tiles. Only a small disk with an LED protrudes through. It takes its power from the Ethernet cable, so there is no need to run separate power cables. It supports the three major power-on-Ethernet standards, said Martino. Both the Switch and ports are branded Mobius Axon. "I think this is the kind of architecture that will be adopted by all enterprise WLANs in a year or so," said Andy Rolfe, a principal analyst at Gartner Group. The main benefit is in separating the radio unit in the wireless access point from the firmware which will change. "The total cost of ownership of wireless LANs is high because there is a high refresh rate for access points -- due to the immaturity of the technology," said Martino. "Every year, each vendor brings out a new product." However, at this point, the savings claimed for Mobius are open to question. The switch costs from $2,895 to $6,191 for six ports to thirty ports, while each access port costs $249. Symbol offers figures showing a ten-port Mobius network (at $5000) is substantially cheaper than a ten-port WLAN from other vendors -- but assumes a $700 cost for enterprise level access points from other vendors, which is high. "Since users can see £99 access points advertised in newspapers, they will take some convincing to buy access points costing twice as much, which require switching from the core," said Rolfe. These cheap access points do not have power-on-Ethernet, so this requirement does mean moving to more expensive enterprise products; however, users with conventional WLANs can use VLANs and encryption to duplicate the Mobius benefits with conventional kit -- albeit using more integration effort. Also, other WLAN vendors such as Proxim and Reef Edge already offer add-on WLAN management boxes which operate with conventional access points. Symbol's other potential problem is its lack of channels for general-purpose networking. The company is the market leader in vertical market wireless sectors such as warehousing, but has not penetrated the office market yet. The Mobius system will be used in Symbol's existing vertical markets, but is clearly intended to play in the general office LAN market -- though Symbol does not yet have a distribution agreement here. "We are talking to the four major LAN equipment distributors in Europe, and expect to have an announcement by the end of 2002," said Girish Rishi, Symbol's vice president for EMEA.

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