Smarts on the Edge Define New Architecture

By Eric Griffith

April 19, 2005

Hardware maker Colubris joins the WLAN switch camp, but eschews the 'thin APs' that are all the rage for what they know best: access points with intelligence.

Waltham, Mass.-based Colubris Networks this week announced its new Unified Services Network (USN) architecture. It's a move it immodestly says puts it in the number two spot for enterprise-class WLAN equipment, right next to Cisco/Airespace and switch startups like Trapeze and Aruba.

USN is the company's first move into the switching space, after finding a niche in high-end access points -- Colubris, for example, makes the high-stress Wi-Fi hardware used in jet planes for Connexion by Boeing. Mike Welts, vice president of marketing at Colubris, says, "Shame on us for not being as proactive" as the switch startups, believing it cost the company some mindshare.

Colubris plans to take on the other switches now by embracing use of its intelligent (or "fat") access points at the edge of the network in the USN architecture. Most other WLAN switches strive to keep the intelligence of the network centralized, with simple radios known as "thin" or "dumb" APs to connect users to the network.

What's more, USN is meant to unify wireless and wired networking. This will happen first for services on the network, and will eventually migrate to management and hardware infrastructure. That switch will come in 2006. First, however, comes the establishment of a more distributed architecture via a MultiService Controller, "a software-driven controller that allows users to put individual modules and services into the extended network," according to Welts. It will handle Quality of Service, security and roaming. The controller will likely be powered by the recently-announced Broadcom chip designed specifically for unifying wired and wireless LAN operations in one box.

"We've done enough analysis to know that people believe centralized architecture is about control," says Welts. "It's not about being a switch, but 'Can I scale and grow and manage it?'"

Colubris believes its reliance on intelligence in the APs gives them better price and performance in the long run, especially when their hardware will be able to use the same standards to interface between the AP and controller. (Such standards are being worked on in the CAPWAP Working Group of the IETF; one proposal to CAPWAP was recently authored in tandem by Trapeze and Aruba.) The company claims it has 10 times the scalability of existing WLAN solutions.

In a white paper on Unified WLANs called "The Switch Evolves," the Farpoint Group said, "The unified model is going to have broad appeal to network designers and managers," because wireless is just a superset of what's now on wired LANs, even if security and mobility need more attention -- "The only real difference between wired and wireless switches is in software."

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