Bringing wireless networks into the management fold

As part of the briefing cycle for Aruba’s announced acquisition of Airwave Wireless, I had a very interesting conversation with Roger Hockaday, EMEA marketing director for Aruba. In part it was about the announcement, but it quickly turned (as these things do) to a discussion of the wider picture of wireless, and indeed wired network management. “Discussing the wider picture” can sometimes mean, for analysts, expressing poorly veiled disdain at the fact that a vendor has not taken things far enough – a bit like when the triumphant person comes into the room to demonstrate, after 6 months of hard graft, that he can now juggle with 3 balls, only to be shot down by some smart alec who says, “yes, but to do it properly, you’ll need to jugggle with 4.” Not that I ever would of course, and certainly not with this – because the challenge is not one that can be resolved in one go.

In this particular case, it is more like juggling with a ping pong ball, a meat hook and a chainsaw. Wireless networking protocols remain all over the place as the bubble-headed wonks of 802.11 land continue to squeeze yet more bandwidth, and indeed distance out of some highly unreliable physics; on top of the base protocols are build a number of security and management capabilities, which are supposed to be compatible, but sometimes don’t quite manage to integrate. While all the attention has been (laudably) on driving up bandwidth and resolving compatibility issues, the black hole remains centralised management, particularly for legacy products that were not built for remote configuration and monitoring.

Aruba’s acquisition signifies both the need to centrally manage the variety of wireless switches that are out there, and the resolve to do something about it. Having not researched this specifically I don’t know if this is down to latent demand or direct customer pressure, but it makes sense that organisations which have rolled out wireless access points on a more ad-hoc basis in the past, are now seeking to integrate their operation with the rest of their network management activities. And incidentally, it may be that Cisco have been able to offer a more integrated approach for a while – but it is a rare organisation that is a wall to wall Cisco shop, so the same issue arises.

While WLAN remote management might be able to bring wireless management into the same room as wired networks, this is still a step away from bringing both onto the same console (and I don’t mean through screen scraping, or “sure, we can do SNMP traps” type conversations). It is true that wireless network configuration and monitoring has different drivers to the wired equivalent: one will largely be to support roaming end-point devices running a limited set of functions, while the other needs to consider the entire network architecture; there will be different (e.g. security) policies applied to each, etcetera. However, more integrated management tools lead to more efficient (and therefore, less costly) management.

We should therefore see this acquisition, and the impetus behind it, as a flag along the road – an indication of where we are in this work in progress. From the end-user perspective, where (as we have seen in recent studies) people care little about how they are getting their bits, just that they can get them, networks and their management tools should be able to see not just wired and switched wireless, but also “mobile” protocols such as HSDPA as part of the same, managed network architecture – particulalrly when things like Unified Communications really start to tip, and picocells extend such protocols into the office. Now that, if and when it comes, will be juggling.

Bringing wireless networks into the management fold

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