Beam forming technology is becoming the wireless LAN (WLAN) battleground this year. And with big and small competitors in the running, the market leader is far from clear.
The technology -- which directs signals more efficiently toward a specific station in a wireless network, partially by monitoring interference -- has been a central focus of Ruckus Wireless's WLAN offering from the get-go.
But just two months after Cisco Systems announced it would also include beam forming in its enterprise WLAN gear, Ruckus has announced a new set of products targeting the enterprise -- a big step forward from its small and midmarket roots.
Ruckus's push is not a hopeless cause. Smaller vendors may have a good chance to make their mark with beam forming technology because many of the traditional larger players have financial or product-line problems to overcome.
Ruckus's updated ZoneFlex Enterprise Smart WLAN package includes a dual-band access point (AP) -- the Ruckus ZoneFlex 7962 -- along with controller software that manages up to 500 APs running on 802.11 a, b, g and n. Ruckus's previous controller handled 250 APs.
The 7962 features a beam forming system with 19 antennas and an automatic interference-mitigation system, and it functions on either a 2.4 GHz or 5 GHz band with a data rate of 300 Mbps.
Dual band advantages
While the beam forming antenna system is designed to prevent loss or interference, the addition of dual band means that networks can more effectively handle bandwidth-intensive applications by segmenting each band for different purposes. For example, high-definition video and voice can be placed on one band while data runs on the other. The dual bands can also enable VARs to run "n" technology and older a/b/g technology simultaneously and while users migrate.
Most analysts agree that beam forming technology will be a major differentiator in a crowded market.
"The vast majority of vendors aren't doing beam forming yet," said Burton Group analyst Paul DeBeasi. "Ruckus is using it as a way to provide better performance and resiliency, and that's key because enterprises are looking for wireless networks to be as reliable and robust as wired networks."
Building customer awareness of selling points
What the competition boils down to now is which of the companies -- Ruckus or Cisco -- can grab customer attention in a tight market with shrinking budgets. The answer seems obvious, since Cisco is the elephant in every VAR-customer meeting room.
But, though it hasn't got much on Cisco's mega-brand, Ruckus says it can offer implementation at about $71 per user -- much less expensive than Cisco or other competitors.
That's especially helpful, since enterprises are chomping at the bit to convert to the costly but better performing "n" technology, according to Ruckus vice president of marketing David Callisch. Access points that run on "g" technology run as low as $150, while "n" APs can soar way above $1,500. The 7962 will sell for $999.
Ruckus channel partners are positive that a good price and good technology will make the difference.
"There aren't the budgets there used to be, so enterprises are going to take a real hard look," said Larry Shattuck, director of business development at eGearUSA, a Ruckus partner based in Holland, Mich. "This satisfies the user and satisfies the next universe of the network managers, and the third universe of the CFO and CEOs."
Cost savings aside, Ruckus and other small companies will run into problems competing against companies like HP ProCurve and Cisco, which have both wired and wireless portfolios that can easily be integrated and jointly managed.
"If you're an enterprise, you're going to want to manage [these networks] in an integrated way. That's where HP ProCurve and Cisco have an advantage," DeBeasi said. "If you look long term down the road, the wireless product sets whether they be (owned by) Ruckus or another company will eventually be bought up by switching companies."
In the meantime, the WLAN market is young enough that any company with the right technology (beam forming at the top of that list) can still make a big play, DeBeasi said.
Many of the larger players that are expected to do well have potential barriers, he added. Motorola has severe financial problems, and HP ProCurve is still working to fully integrate Colubris into its product line. That leaves the door open for Ruckus and a load of other smaller companies, including Meru and Extricom.
"It's not like this market is all sewn up," DeBeasi said.