Lucent is a cut above 3Com, Cisco 802.11b wireless systems

By Herb Bethoney, PC Week Online PC Week labs and the Evaluation judges from Cornell University, Duke Energy Corp., Northwestern Mutual LifeInsurance Co.

By Herb Bethoney, PC Week Online

PC Week labs and the Evaluation judges from Cornell University, Duke Energy Corp., Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co. and the University of Wisconsin could easily recommend any of the systems tested during this Eval—3Com Corp.'s AirConnect, Cisco Systems Inc.'s Aironet and Lucent Technologies Inc.'s Orinoco—but the Lucent solution rises to the top.

The Lucent Orinoco line not only performed as promised but also was more extensible and flexible than the other products tested and had the best set of administration and configuration tools. Even Cisco and 3Com shops should make Lucent their starting point when investigating 802.11b wireless systems.

Lucent will have to work hard to retain its lead, though. Cisco's networking prowess and vast customer base, combined with its acquisition of Aironet Inc., place the company in a strong position to compete effectively in large organizations.

In addition to their in-building wireless equipment, both Cisco and Lucent provide long-range (more than 10 miles) wireless products for building-to-building network connectivity. 3Com doesn't support this level of connectivity, concentrating instead on in-building wireless connectivity and ease of installation. 3Com leaves multiple-building connectivity to third-party products. Six months down the road ... well, that's another story.

The 802.11b wireless solutions from Cisco, 3Com and Lucent provided reliable and robust wireless networking capabilities in Eval tests at Cornell's S.C. Johnson School of Management, in Ithaca, N.Y.

Wireless equipment that is 802.11b-compliant is based on direct-sequence spread-spectrum technology and operates in the unlicensed 2.4GHz band. The 802.11b standard provides for communication between a wireless client NIC (network interface card) and an access point that connects to a wired LAN. The standard also specifies a wireless data rate of up to 11M bps, with fallback rates of 5.5M bps, 2M bps and 1M bps the farther a client machine travels away from an access point.

However, data rate is one thing, and actual throughput is another. Although the nominal data rate of 11M bps compares favorably to Ethernet's 10BaseT data rate of 10M bps, actual wireless throughput is on the order of 5M bps or less. We averaged about 5M bps when we were within 20 feet of an access point and about 1M bps when we were about 60 feet away with several walls in between.

Cost-effective solutions

The recent release of 802.11b equipment has finally made wireless equipment affordable. Two years ago, an access point and one wireless NIC cost $5,000. Now, the equivalent equipment is five times as powerful and less than one-third the cost.

Lucent's long experience in wireless technology is manifested in the breadth and smart design of its 802.11b Orinoco line, which revolves around the company's PC Card NICs. For example, Lucent's $995 WavePoint II access point uses Lucent's $179 PC Card. The company's $69 PCI and ISA bus adapters for desktop computers accept the same PC Cards, as do the $4,995 Orinoco AS-1000 access server and Orinoco outdoor router.

To upgrade an access point or a desktop computer, a network staffer can just slip out the old PC Card and insert a new one. The old card can then be given to a user who may not need the upgraded features of the new card.

The $395 Orinoco Ethernet and serial converter also uses a Lucent wireless PC Card to wirelessly connect devices with an Ethernet or a serial port but no card slot—such as a printer—to an Ethernet LAN.

We tested Lucent's Silver Orinoco PC Card, which offers 40-bit WEP (Wireless Equivalent Privacy) encryption. Lucent also offers 128-bit WEP encryption in its $199 Gold Orinoco cards.

Cisco's Aironet 340 Series follows closely behind Lucent in breadth of product offer ings, excluding only the SOHO (small-office/home-office) market. The company's Aironet 340 access point lists for $1,299, and the 128-bit WEP-encrypted PC Card lists for $249. The company's PCI and ISA cards for desktop PCs list for $349 each.

3Com's AirConnect line is the least extensible, including a $1,195 AirConnect access point and a $219 AirConnect PC Card. AirConnect equipment doesn't have WEP encryption, but the company plans to offer it as a firmware update next month. The company also plans to ship a PCI card for desktops next month.

Measuring connectivity

Criteria for the Eval were determined by PC Week Labs, the S.C. Johnson School's Technology Services Department and PC Week Corporate Partners. Tests included accessing the Internet, downloading and uploading data, and viewing streaming media on client notebooks.

We were fortunate to be at the Johnson School during spring break, and we had the run of the building for testing connectivity and throughput. The school has an impressive atrium in the middle of the building, and we took advantage of the large open space to test line-of-sight connectivity in the building between a notebook and an access point.

As expected, connectivity was very good when we were in line of sight of an access point within about 100 feet, but connectivity dropped as we walked around and behind walls. With three walls blocking an access point, connectivity to the LAN dropped to about 60 feet from the access point.

Commandeering one of the school's classrooms, we set up a Snap server and an Ethernet hub connected to a subnet on the school's Ethernet LAN for installation and configuration testing. Each vendor's access point was connected to the hub via the access point's Ethernet port and configured with a notebook computer.

We used the Cisco and 3Com access points' serial ports to directly connect to a notebook for initial configuration. Lucent's WavePoint II access point has no serial port but allowed us to configure the unit via an Ethernet crossover cable directly connected from the notebook to the unit's Ether net port. Lucent plans to ship an access point with a serial port in July.

It was simple and straightforward to install and configure all three vendors' access points. Lucent's WavePoint II includes two PC Card slots, which, when populated with Lucent PC Cards, can transmit on different channels. This allows administrators to load balance a heavily used access point and increase the scalability of the wireless LAN.

"In a classroom with a concentration of 50 to 80 users, we could easily place a Lucent access point and have half the class on one channel and half the class on another channel and effectively balance the throughput load," said Kevin Baradet, network systems director at the Johnson School.

Cisco's 340 Aironet access point uses two antennas. This allows administrators to configure one antenna to receive and the other to transmit, to fine-tune performance.

Although 3Com is a newcomer to the wireless arena, it can teach veterans Cisco and Lucent a thing or two. For example, 3Com's AirConnect includes a Power- Base-T module that attaches to the access point's power supply and provides electrical power over Category 5 Ethernet cable. Using the PowerBase-T module, network managers can install an access point up to 300 feet away from the power supply, deriving power directly from the LAN's wiring. Using the PowerBase-T also means that IT personnel can install access points without requiring an electrician to install power outlets—a big cost savings, especially in union shops.

The AirConnect has a nonremovable antenna. Cisco's access point has removable antennas that can be replaced with an extended antenna, and Lucent provides a connection on its PC Card to attach an external antenna.

One drawback to the Aironet, though, is that the unit must be sent back to the vendor for resetting if the access password is lost or forgotten. The 3Com and Lucent solutions, in contrast, allowed us to reset their access points back to the default settings.

During testing, installation of all three solutions' drivers for Windows 98 went smoothly. Windows 95 was another story, however. The Cisco installation wizard couldn't find the Windows 95 drivers on the installation CD, and 3Com drivers for Windows 95 had to be downloaded from the company's Web site.

Once installed correctly, though, the Windows 95-based Cisco and 3Com clients connected easily to the network.

Lucent is the only vendor with Mac OS drivers, and PC Week Labs' Apple AirPort-equipped PowerBook G3 easily connected to every vendor's access point without a hitch using the AirPort drivers included with Mac OS 9. (Lucent makes the wireless equipment for Apple Computer Inc.) We also installed Lucent's Mac OS drivers and had no trouble connecting the PowerBook wirelessly to each vendor's access point with the Lucent Orinoco PC Card.

Cisco and 3Com plan to release Macintosh drivers for their cards soon.

Site survey tools

Wireless LAN technology is based on radio transmissions. It is critical to do a site survey to determine the best placement of access point transceivers to ensure optimum reception. A good site survey will also help determine the number of access points needed to ensure adequate coverage with out purchasing unnecessary units.

One lesson we learned in this Eval, however, was to place more access points, rather than fewer, if connectivity is at all doubtful. "There's always a trade-off between data rate and distance," said Kevin Wilson, workstation analyst for Duke Energy, in Charlotte, N.C., and a PC Week Corporate Partner.

All three vendors supply good site survey tools, but Lucent's superior administration tools put Orinoco, again, a cut above the Cisco and 3Com solutions.

For example, Lucent's Orinoco line allows managers to easily import MAC (media access control) addresses from a text file. The Cisco and 3Com systems, in contrast, require administrators to add MAC addresses one at a time. The Lucent system will make it much easier to lock down the wireless LAN.

Once we configured the systems, we tested roaming from one access point range to another. We found that each vendor's access point handled handoff from one zone to another very well. Unfortunately, interoperability between different vendors' access points isn't part of the 802.11b standard, so we weren't able to mix and match access points and still maintain a smooth handoff.

In addition to testing access point-to-client access, we tested peer-to-peer, or ad hoc, connectivity. Lucent and Cisco offer the ability for mobile users to share information using just their PC Card NICs. We found that the Cisco and Lucent cards can easily communicate with each other and can also interoperate. This interoperability will be especially useful for mobile workers who must quickly share information but don't have access to a wired LAN.

"Oftentimes, we send audit teams to power plants we manage, and setting up an ad hoc wireless LAN will allow team members to easily share information without requiring services from on-site IT personnel," Wilson said.

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