Wireless networking is evolving at a rapid pace, transforming into an increasingly viable solution for enterprise networks. Performance boosts and security enhancements are among the forces pushing wireless deeper into the networking mainstream. Vivato is taking that evolution a step further with the introduction of indoor and outdoor Wi-Fi switches. Vivato expects to launch the products in early 2003. They'll be the first wireless switching products to hit the market and could have a significant impact on how organizations deploy wireless networks. A single switch installed indoors will offer network coverage for an entire floor, while an outdoor switch can connect buildings.
Service providers will be able to take advantage of the several-mile range of the outdoor switch, and the indoor switches' shorter range of around two miles will give organizations much more flexibility in deploying wireless networks by replacing multiple access points.
The technology Vivato is introducing could represent a significant step forward for wireless networking. Any organization that has implemented WLANs or is planning a WLAN implementation this year should take note.
Company and product background
Vivato is a two-year-old startup headquartered in San Francisco. Unlike other companies in the wireless market, Vivato is focusing on infrastructure products rather than client devices. To achieve wireless switching, Vivato combined existing smart antenna technology with existing wireless technology.
“People thought that combination was impossible,” said Vivato Vice President of Marketing Phil Belanger, “but we figured out how to make it work and we were able to accomplish it because we had multiple disciplines on our team.”
An important part of the knowledge necessary to combine the two technologies came from the founders’ backgrounds in the cellular phone industry with Agilent. Belanger said that their experience building test equipment for the cellular phone industry and working with sophisticated RF equipment was instrumental in their work to marry smart antennas with wireless technology.
Belanger said that Vivato’s switches represent a big change in wireless networking products largely because, up until now, most of the devices introduced have been client adapters and access points. Belanger sees wireless switching as a sign that the market is maturing and believes that the introduction of these products represents a new architecture. He said that this evolution of wireless networking is analogous to that of Ethernet networking.
“When Ethernet switching was introduced, it helped the explosion of Ethernet because it really scaled up the capacity so it could work in large installations.”
Another parallel is in the constant upgrading of the speed of Ethernet. Belanger said the same kind of thing is happening in wireless networking. The market is beginning to explode because of the rapid improvements being made.
Belanger feels that Vivato’s switches offer a more robust way to deploy wireless networks with a lower TCO because there will be fewer pieces of hardware to install. For example, organizations currently have to deploy a number of access points to provide network coverage on a single floor. But with the Vivato switches, they’ll deploy just one device on a building floor to achieve the same connectivity.
The switches will operate much like standard gigabit Ethernet switches, and the devices include support for VPNs, VLANs, and 802.1X security. Because the switches will operate in a familiar manner and because they will replace many devices that would otherwise have to be installed, Belanger said that the Vivato wireless solution will be easier to manage.
The range of the outdoor switch Vivato has developed also makes it a solution well tailored for broadband delivery.
“We have phenomenal range. We’ve taken the range of Wi-Fi from something that operates at tens of meters to something that operates at kilometer distances.”
Belanger said from the service-provider perspective, this solution presents a potential alternative for delivering broadband to the home more cost effectively. Instead of a DSL or cable modem/router that costs $100 or more to act as an Internet gateway, Belanger said the gateway in users’ homes could be a Wi-Fi card (or a newer notebook with Wi-Fi built in). The cost of the client equipment would be lower, and it would be much easier to implement.
Performance, reliability, and security
Although wireless networking may not yet be an actual substitute for wired networking, it does offer some benefits that make it attractive in many cases. Where freedom of mobility is important, wireless networking has obvious advantages. And because it does not require pulling cables or making accommodations for wiring, it can potentially lower infrastructure costs, especially in locations with certain limitations. At the very least, wireless networking is easier to install because of the absence of cabling.
Although wireless networking is not as robust in terms of performance as wired networking, Belanger pointed out that the evolving standards for wireless networking are at least making it as reliable. However, he noted that the measures taken to make wireless reliable have come with some overhead costs in terms of performance.
“To get to that same level of robustness, there’s overhead. The cost of building in the reliability is that it’s not as efficient as Ethernet. Out of the 11 MB provided for in 802.11b, you might get 6 1/2 MB of actual throughput.”
The other question about wireless networking—especially with Vivato’s switches, which have an increased range—is security. Belanger said that along with the security built into the boxes, including support for the Wi-Fi Alliance-backed Wireless Protected Access (WPA) protocol, VPN, low-level encryption, and 802.1X authentication and key distribution, the Vivato switches offer the security benefit of using focused beams rather than a broadcast signal.
“The switches aren’t putting out any more real energy than a conventional access point. Most of the range improvement comes from antenna gain that allows us to set up very narrow beams of Wi-Fi.”
The narrowing of the beam, Belanger said, makes it possible for the switches to achieve the greater range. The security benefit is that the signal isn’t being broadcast in all directions to be easily intercepted. Beams are focused where they need to go (and when they need to go) rather than broadcasting all the time.
“We can point the beams precisely at the intended clients, and we can move them around on a packet-by-packet basis…. Unless you’re close in, you’re not going to hear much traffic. You’ll pick up traffic only when the beam is aimed in your direction,” Belanger said.
Through a built-in scanning function that operates all the time, the switches can locate the clients and direct the beam. Once the function finds a client, it records information about the location so it knows where to send transmissions.
“We use that function to collect information about the nodes we want to participate on the network, but we can use that same function to detect rogue access points.”
The software that's shipping with the device will allow users to take advantage of the security capabilities of the switch. Another security benefit is that the onboard hardware accelerator supports 802.11i, which changes the encryption method and will require hardware upgrades for many wireless products. Vivato’s switches will be firmware upgradeable to support the new standard.
Because Vivato’s switches introduce new wireless functionality and incorporate a number of useful features, they could represent a big step forward for wireless networking in the enterprise. The switches may eliminate the need for many wireless devices currently in use and extend the effective range of wireless connectivity, and they offer built-in security features.
Organizations should pay close attention to wireless switching when Vivato’s products arrive sometime in the first quarter of 2003.