Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Is HP selling Symbol WLAN kit?

I'm planning to look under the covers of various WLAN equipment in this blog, so I thought I'd start with a recent announcement in the field. In May HP launched a wireless blade for its edge switch. I was reasonably skeptical at Techworld but gave them a couple of cheers.

Prior to this, HP was re-selling a wireless box by a company called Vernier, as the HP 700wl. The Vernier box is essentially a firewall between the wired and wireless parts of the enterprise network. This was a good idea in 2003 to 2004 or so, when companies like Vernier, ReefEdge and Bluesocket sprang up to sell this kind of thing. HP could never bring itself to use the word Vernier but the boxes looked identical.

Things have moved on, and the gateway approach is passé. Vernier is now more of a security company, ReefEdge and still a useful product, ReefEdge closed down, and Bluesocket is shifting to the architecture that won out during 2004 - switched Wi-Fi with thin access points, the approach started by barcode giant Symbol, and popularised by Aruba, Trapeze, and the one that Cisco bought - Airespace.

By the beginning of 2005, thin APs had won, and 18 months on, HP is picking up on the trend, with a wireless LAN switch of its own. Though perhaps I might rephrase that last sentence.

As Cisco has done with the Airespace products, HP is integrating wireless, in a blade for its switches - somewhat cheaper than Cisco's version, and fitting in an edge switch (the 5300, as HP's edge orientation would lead you to expect.

Also, at this stage of the wireless LAN market, you would absolutely not expect HP to build its own switch, when there are plenty around to OEM. But, this being HP, we get the same reticence we had over Vernier.

I quizzed global mobility product manager Kail Krall on the issue, and he said this was "HP technology." Is it HP owned or HP licensed technology I asked. "I can't answer that," he replied. He looked very uncomfortable.

HP's ProCurve networking division doesn't want to admit to not owning and building its technology; it wants to be seen as an engineering outfit. It wants to be separate from the rest of HP - more or less an ink company building a services arm.

But realistically, no-one would respect a company that did something as foolish as build a 2004-style wireless LAN switch from scratch, today. No one would buy a product like that. We know it's from someone else, but they just can't tell us.

So whose is it? I wondered about Chantry, a wireless LAN switch which was fairly well respected in its day, but now gone to Siemens, a company with which HP works on occasion. Apparently that's unlikely - although Chantry isn't dead (I'll come to that in a later post)

The possibility that gets mentioned most is Symbol. HP is selling "radio ports", similar to Symbol's access ports. HP's Radio Port 220 bearing a resemblance to Trapeze's AP300 access port. Sources - not at HP - tell me that both use Intersil radios, and a PPC 405EP CPU, but as this didn't come from HP or Symbol, I'd welcome confirmation or denial.

The surprise is that Symbol is the least interesting wireless LAN switch company. OK, it invented the concept, but it is being left behind, as other people's WLANs get more interesting. Two years ago, it was hamstrung by its insistence on distinctive radio hardware, and I've not seen much to change that. It's struggling to get out of its home area of warehouses and shops into carpeted offices. Its Interop announcement of a unified radio system smacked of marketecture.

HP isn't stupid. It's probably going this way because at this stage, wireless LAN isn't that important. It's not the boom it was supposed to be back in 2004, and it's not that crucial to be ahead of the game. But they can't say that, obviously - it's a new product so it has to be heading for a super-duper market.

It's a shame they can't talk about it in real terms though. When Symbol made a similar blade for IBM's blade server centre, IBM was happy to put Symbol's name on it. When I met Paul Congdon, the CTO of ProCurve last week, I didn't push the issue, because HP folks always get embarassed around this kind of thing. I asked the question, and it bounced off.


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