Wireless switch standards war

It’s already received wisdom that the right way to build an enterprise WiFi network is with a small number of smart switches and a large number of dumb (and cheap) access points that do little more than act as remote radios for the switch. Symbol pioneered the concept, and now everybody else (especially switch and router companies like Cisco, Extreme, and Juniper,) has climbed on board. Is the industry ready to standardize a management protocol for dumb access points? These folks say yes:

Engineers from Airespace, Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO – message board), and NTT DoCoMo Inc. (NYSE: DCM – message board) have presented the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) with a memo proposing a standard protocol for controlling 802.11 “lightweight” or “thin” access points via a wireless LAN switch.

Following the trend towards wireless LAN switching that is happening in the industry, the authors are proposing a “standardized, interoperable” lightweight access point protocol (LWAPP) that can “radically simplify the deployment and management of wireless networks.”

But others, like Trapeze, the Extreme spin-off in Pleasanton funded by kiss-of-death VC Accel Partners, think not:

Like most draft standards, this one already has its critics. Trapeze Networks Inc., for example, questions the need to develop a lightweight protocol at all. “If you architect your system correctly? then why do you need it?” asks George Prodan, senior VP of worldwide marketing at Trapeze.

Prediction (worth what you paid for it): Cisco, Airespace, and NTT will win, Trapeze and Accel will lose, and this isn’t the end of wireless engineering, by a long shot. Airespace’s Systems Enginnering director, Bob O’Hara, has been a long-time leader in the 802.11 standards process, from the early days when Greg Ennis and Phil Belanger presented the DFWMAC amalgam of wireless protocols (including my Plink II) to the committee for approval, so this would be slam-dunk in that arena. He doesn’t have that kind of weight in the highly-political IETF, but Cisco does, and the idea has the added benefit of actually making sense, which still counts for something these days.

UN talks Internet to villages; electricity can wait

The UN is going to hold a meeting to talk about wireless networking in the Third World, with help from The Wireless Internet Institute:

On June 26 , 2003, the Wireless Internet Institute will join forces with the United Nations Information and Communication Technologies Task Force to host “The WiFi Opportunity for Developing Nations” at UN Headquarters in New York City. The conference will create the conditions for informal dialogue and brainstorming among industry practitioners, government representatives and international development experts. It will feature plenary sessions and structured brainstorming workshops to establish strategies to overcome obstacles as well as develop environments favorable to the broad deployment of WiFi infrastructures. Conference conclusions will serve as a blueprint for national consensus-building programs, spectrum-policy reform and infrastructure deployment.

Maybe now that Hans Blix is out of a job, he can inspect Third World nations for strategies to overcome obstacles to Internet connectivity, like, um, no computers and stuff. At least that’ll keep him out of real trouble.

Don’t get me wrong here, I’m trashing the UN, not WiFi. I love WiFi, and not just because I invented most of its MAC protocol for Photonics back in 1992 (beacons, segmentation, RTS/CTS, and addressing). WiFi is a great solution to the “last 100 feet” problem, but it’s not a backbone or wide-area mesh solution, because: a) there aren’t enough channels in the 801.11b spectrum for that, and b) 802.11a doesn’t go far enough. So we need some better solutions to the infrastructure problem than 802.11, and we even need better solutions to the “last 100 feet” than the standard allows. As originally designed, the MAC supported the kinds of Quality of Service mechanisms needed for telephony, but the trio that shoehorned the standard dropped this feature, and now we’ve got a mess on our hands.

So 802.11 is nice, but it’s time to go to the second generation before we get too hog-wild about implementing it everywhere. And you already knew that anything the UN’s up to these days is likely to be crap.

And just incidentally, if there’s no such thing as RF interference (as David Reed and David Weinberger claim), then why should the FCC free up more channels for WiFi?