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Networking

Wi-Fi switch makers search for standard

Equipment suppliers band together to make gear interoperable, but small players fear Cisco could hijack the process.

As large companies install Wi-Fi in their offices, equipment suppliers are challenged to come up with a new standard that will allow gear from different companies to work together.

Interoperability between radio access points used to transmit signals throughout offices and a new breed of wireless LAN (local area network) switches that centrally control these switches has been an issue for some time. Companies that want the ease and security benefits of using a centrally managed wireless switch have been forced to buy access points from the same supplier.

Now, makers of this wireless gear are getting together to come up with a new standard that will ultimately allow switches to operate with any radio frequency access point.

"It all comes down to customer choice," said Pat Calhoun, CTO of Cisco Systems' wireless business unit. "There are a lot of companies coming out with innovative RF (radio frequency) technology, so we want to give the customers the freedom to mix and match."

Last week, start-ups Aruba Wireless Networks and Trapeze Networks submitted to the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), a standards body, the latest proposal to make this interoperability a reality. A working group in the IETF called the Control and Provisioning of Wireless Access Points is reviewing the submission along with three others that have previously been submitted from Cisco, Siemens and Panasonic. A final standard won't likely emerge until 2006.

Many people in the industry believe that Cisco's acquisition of Airespace has played a significant role in moving the process forward. With a large player such as Cisco in the game, it makes sense for smaller companies to look for ways to allow their equipment to interoperate with Cisco's gear. Aruba has already begun opening its source code up to developers, and Trapeze has announced its Open Access Point Initiative.

"Cisco's acquisition of Airespace has validated the wireless LAN switch and access point market," said Merwyn Andrade, CTO of Aruba. "And it makes this new interoperability standard much more interesting."

But smaller players, such as Aruba, are nervous that Cisco might try to throw its weight around in the standards body as it pushes its adopted proposal.

"Cisco didn't really have an opinion on this before they acquired Airespace," said Partha Narasimhan, chief wireless architect for Aruba. "But now they are supporting the Airespace proposal, and there's a chance they could try to push it down other people's throat."

But Calhoun denies that Cisco would force the group to accept a proposal that wasn't in the best interest of the industry.

"Cisco's size and standing in the market has some influence in the standards process," he said. "But it has no more influence than any other big company. The IETF is about individuals coming together. At the end of the day, more weight is given to proposals with the best technical merit--the ones that show true interoperability and have running code."