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Burton Group spotlights WLAN winners and losers

At the recent Catalyst Conference, a Burton analyst said this year's top wireless LAN vendors have mastered RF management, while a few well-known vendors still don't have a clue.

SAN DIEGO -- According to one industry expert, to rank with the top wireless LAN vendors in the field, or to at least avoid being one of the worst, a focus on radio frequency (RF) management is a must.

Speaking at the Burton Group Catalyst Conference last week, Michael Disabato, vice president and service director with the Midvale, Utah-based firm, delivered his second annual list of the best -- and worst -- WLAN vendors in the business.

Companies looking at WLAN vendors might want to skip AirFlow Networks Inc. and Chantry Networks Inc., and instead opt for Cisco Systems Inc. or Airespace Inc., according to Disabato's annual listing of wireless networking winners and losers.

Wireless is coming to your enterprise in one way or another.

Michael Disabato
Burton Group

 The analyst's ranking breaks down the major players into three columns: the winners, the losers and the "jury is still out" column.

Disabato said AirFlow, Chantry and Extreme Networks Inc. were the three big losers this year because they don't offer solid RF management tools, which can detect when access points (APs) go offline and automatically fix the situation, or report the faulty AP to the network manager.

"They're the ones that keep telling me that the way to do this is to walk around with [a tool from] AirMagnet or Network Instruments to find the coverage holes, or wait until the end users report coverage holes," Disabato said.

"That is not the way you should be doing this," he added. "There are enough systems out there that can tell you where these coverage holes are and allow you to go plug them first."

In the "jury's out" category, Disabato listed Foundry Networks Inc. and Proxim Corp. because their newest products haven't been released yet.

Symbol Technologies Inc. was also listed in the "jury's out" column for what the analyst called financial rather than technical reasons.

"Their [former] CEO is currently living in Finland and awaiting extradition to the United States on securities fraud," he said. "The entire company is under investigation by the SEC."

The big winners in the annual rating were Airespace, Aruba Wireless Networks Inc. and Cisco.

Disabato said Cisco earns credit for its vast resources and the fact that it has been improving their offering, Disabato said. But, he added that he still isn't blown away by their WLAN solutions engine or RF management capabilities.

"Airespace is not only selling hardware," he said. "They're focusing on the thing that is most important in my mind, which is RF management."

He also discussed some of the recent advancements in WLAN technology, including smart antenna designs and voice over wireless.

Disabato said those have been the two biggest and most exciting advancements in the area of WLAN technology this past year.

He said smart antennas, such as the phased array antenna being offered by Vivato Inc., are "electronically steerable" and increase traditional levels of transmit power and receiver sensitivity. They also allow a wireless signal to be focused instead of spread spherically.

"These are going to improve the efficiency of the network to the point where some of that signal falloff doesn't happen anymore," Disabato said.

The analyst said voice over WLAN technology is slowly but surely gaining acceptance, primarily in the health care, airport operations, manufacturing and retail industries.

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 "This year voice is going to go mobile," he said.

One conference attendee, a network engineer with a large oil and gas company who asked that his name be withheld, said he isn't surprised that RF management is becoming a topic at the forefront of WLAN discussions.

He said that's because wireless networks share the same RF as everything from cordless phones to microwave ovens and baby monitors.

The engineer said his company deployed 802.11 wireless laptops about two years ago when there wasn't yet a very large installed base of wireless users. Since then, nearby hotels have launched their own 802.11 networks for customers and interference problems have cropped up.

"Wireless is coming to your enterprise in one way or another," Disabato said. "You are going to install it in a nice controlled environment or you're going to be chasing down all the … (wireless) routers that everybody else decides to deploy."

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