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Integrating wired and wireless network management

Shamus McGillicuddy, News Editor

There may come a day when networking pros can count on wired and wireless network management through one integrated network management platform, but these dreams won't be realized for quite some time. In the meantime, everyone is trying to offer some semblance of this Holy Grail of unified network management.

Take Aruba's AirWave 7, the latest version of the vendor-agnostic wireless LAN management platform. The new version, introduced earlier this month, includes two new features that extend AirWave's management domain beyond wireless. The first feature, mobile device management (MDM), gives network managers a certain degree of over-the-air control over devices -- such as handhelds and wireless printers -- connected to the wireless LAN. AirWave 7 also includes a new wired infrastructure feature that extends the software's visibility into the edge switches that wireless LAN controllers connect to. This initial release works only with Cisco and HP ProCurve switches.

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Aruba developed these new features in response to feedback from AirWave customers, according to Bryan Wargo, general manager of Aruba's AirWave business.

"They said there are no tools that give an end-to-end view of a wireless transaction, from the edge switch to the client," Wargo said. "They already have a ton of tools that are kind of islands of components and information, and [using] another tool doesn't sit very well with them."

Why integrated wired and wireless network management?

Some users aren't necessarily looking to toss existing network management tools but rather to be sure that there is a bridge between wired and wireless network management .

"You've got to have something on the wired side that talks to the wireless side," said senior IT staff specialist Greg Catalano, who is planning to implement AirWave 7 later this year at Idaho-based paper and construction supply manufacturer Boise Inc. He will use it to manage his wireless LAN, which is composed mostly of Motorola gear, with some legacy Cisco and Enterasys gear. He'll run AirWave in tandem with Solarwinds' Orion, his primary wired network management tool.

Still other users are willing to consolidate for the right tool.

Cabela's, a Sydney, Neb.-based retailer of hunting, fishing and camping gear, has a network that is Cisco-based from the switches to the controllers and access points, yet its management tools for the network are still somewhat siloed. Gary Putman, enterprise network manager at Cabela's, uses Orion from Solarwinds and the open source network management tool Groundworks to manage and monitor his wired network, while he uses AirWave to manage the wireless LAN. Putman is still on AirWave 6, but he's interested in the wired networking capabilities of version 7. He said that if AirWave were to offer all of the features for wired network management that Solarwinds' Orion product has, he would be happy to consolidate.

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"Wireless is still more of an art than a skill or a science, because it evolves so much and there are so many weird things that can happen," Putman said. "It would be nicer to go to one [network management console] to make sure a wireless phone is working, to be able to see quality of service going through the controller. It would be good to be able to say, 'OK, show me the port and network on the wired side to make sure my traffic is being marked and I don't have any issues on that whole path.' That's where the integration of them would be a lot better."

One thing is clear, the need for integrated wired and wireless network management tools won't disappear any time soon since enterprises are going to have a hybrid wired and wireless network infrastructure for a while, said Paul DeBeasi, senior analyst with the Burton Group. When there is a problem on that hybrid network, network managers often struggle to figure out the source of the trouble.

"Let's say voice is not working correctly," DeBeasi said. "Is the problem on the wireless side because the phone is sitting on the edge of a cell and the physical layer connection isn't strong enough? Or is it some sort of problem with the quality of service queue on a switch upstream? How do you solve that? Do you use two separate tools -- one for wired and one for wireless -- that don't know anything about each other, or do you try to integrate the tools so the problem diagnosis is simpler?"

The long road to integrated wired and wireless network management

Aruba isn't alone in its efforts to develop integrated wired and wireless network management, also described as unified network management. Cisco Systems has been promoting the concept of a unified wireless network for some time, and the network diagram that illustrates this concept shows just how complex the challenge is.

HP ProCurve has been moving in this direction, too. After it acquired wireless LAN vendor Colubris Networks in 2008, ProCurve moved quickly to update its basic network management platform, ProCurve Manager.

Wireless LAN vendor Meru Networks introduced a Service Assurance Module to its network management platform, E(z)RF Network Manager, which generates synthetic wireless client traffic that allows Meru to analyze packet traffic across both the wired and wireless infrastructure.

Many vendors are taking their own paths toward integrated network management, but no one is quite there yet, according to Chris Silva, senior analyst with Forrester Research.

"Even Cisco isn't 100% there yet," Silva said. "Cisco has Mobility Services Engine, the Wireless Control System for wireless, and IOS for routing and switching. That's a lot of different domain expertise in different areas that you need to gather in order to run a Cisco unified network."

Integrated wired and wireless network management in baby steps

"I think it will take a long time to get a single pane for [integrated network management] because devices are so specialized and different," DeBeasi said. "The first thing you're going to see will be an integration of problem diagnosis, where [people] can call the help desk and say they can't get connected."

In this scenario, the help-desk technician will be able to look at all of the elements involved in that wireless connectivity problem, he said. First, the tech will look at the user's device to see whether there is a problem receiving a Wi-Fi signal. Then he will look at the access point and the control to see whether there is a problem there. Next, he will look at the switch that is connected upstream to the controller. Then he will look at the router that is connected to that switch.

"Eventually, you will be able to span the end-to-end path and go all the way to the server and really look at what's going on," DeBeasi said. "But we're not there yet."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Shamus McGillicuddy, News Editor