With its new entry into the wireless mesh market, Cisco brings some new cards to the table, including multi-radio technology and proprietary controllers. With Cisco in the arena, the wireless mesh game is sure to be different in coming months.
One of the great ironies of wireless LANs is they require a lot of wire to link access points to a private network or the Internet. Fortunately, with wireless mesh technology those "backhaul" links can take place over wireless connections. Cisco's recent entry into the wireless mesh market, the Aironet 1500 Series Lightweight Outdoor Mesh Access Point, could speed the technology's evolution.
Mesh technology could be a boon for metropolitan-area wireless networks. In a mesh environment, a packet originating on a Wi-Fi client first travels to the AP providing access service, but then may travel wirelessly across additional APs before finding its way onto a wired Internet link. This approach provides both significant deployment flexibility and resilience. Because the path through the mesh is dynamic, packets can be sent over optimal mesh routes.
Cisco brings a big name and some new technology to the mesh market, which includes BelAir, Firetide, Motorola, Nortel, Strix and Tropos. Tropos, the primary equipment provider for Wireless Philadelphia, has the largest installed base. Its low-cost, single-radio mesh AP provides both access and backhaul services over a single radio. Cisco, on the other hand, provides access through an 802.11g radio and backhaul services using 802.11a. Some vendors include three or more radios, delivering both sectorized access and dedicated ingress and egress backhaul. Multiradio wireless mesh routers are more scalable, but they also cost more. Cisco's $3,995 dual-radio 1500 costs only about $500 more than a Tropos 5210 MetroMesh Router, but it also requires costly, proprietary WLAN controllers.
The new mesh product will help Cisco get some of the metropolitan-area Wi-Fi pie--ABI Research pegs the market at more than $1.3 billion by 2010--but it also helps Cisco in other ways. First, it dissuades customers from deploying its competitors' products. Second, it gives Cisco a competitive differentiator against upstart enterprise WLAN infrastructure vendors--such as Aruba and Trapeze--that will play well in campuses or warehouse facilities where wired backhaul isn't readily available. Finally, it encourages existing Cisco customers to move toward the LWAPP (Lightweight Access Point Protocol) architecture, which helps the company offset reduced AP profit margins by selling more profitable WLAN controllers.
Enterprise IT departments considering campus WLAN deployments should factor wireless mesh into their plans, and the new products will be a welcome option for Cisco customers. Just be aware there aren't any wireless mesh standards yet, so you'll need to standardize on a single provider.