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« Earthlink Integrates Boingo Software | Main | WiMax: Where and When »

July 12, 2004

Interview with AirWave's Greg Murphy

airwave logoA talk with AirWave's COO: In a bit of coincidental timing, AirWave's $7 million funding announcement today dovetails with a recent interview I had with Greg Murphy, the founder of AirWave's two incarnations and currently the chief operations officer.

Those with reasonably long memories will recall that AirWave started as a hotspot company and was setting up restaurants in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2001. Faced with the dotcom downturn, the company sold its Wi-Fi locations to a startup operator -- in turn acquired by Ikano and operated now as Hotspotzz -- but turned its expertise in managing remote access points into its main business.

AirWave is on the verge of releasing its third version of the AirWave Management Platform, which allows management through a central software server of dozens to thousands of heterogeneous access points (APs) from vendors like Cisco, 3Com, Avaya, Proxim, and others. AirWave's basic philosophy is that companies can be free to choose whatever access points they need, but also that most companies already have APs from multiple vendors that they aren't interested in replacing.

With a central console, the network can be monitored for new APs, which can be automatically configured; traffic statistics can be collected in one location for an entire worldwide network; reconfiguring 10 or 1,000 routers involves the same amount of work; and rogue access points can be detected when they're plugged into a network. Similar hardware and software is available from Cisco, Proxim, and others to manage just their own equipment with some support for outside integration with other APs.

I spoke to Murphy last month just after AirWave had announced that their system was being used in 10 major universities around the U.S. Murphy noted his alma mater, Amherst, had put in Ethernet everywhere as part of an early wave of making Internet access available to all students. The current wave is, of course, Wi-Fi.

"It's so much more affordable than punching a hole in every dorm," Murphy said. Every time a college opens a wall, they might find construction problems, code issues, or even asbestos. "If I don't open the wall, I don't have to know what's in there," Murphy said.

The AirWave system works well in colleges because they're among the most likely candidates to have patchworks of equipment from many companies, including commodity consumer gear, and then overlay a more comprehensive management approach on top of that existing, already-paid-for infrastructure.

In general, Murphy said, "The larger the networks grow, and the longer they're in place, the more likely they are to be heterogeneous." He said that in most environments, the reality isn't that a company has just 600 Cisco APs or 250 Symbol APs. More commonly, it might be 300 of one and 200 of another and then 10 different vendors' APs of which a company has 3 or 4 of each, often in remote offices. "Who knows who bought them," Murphy said, but they're in active use.

Standardization hasn't helped management any because the standards don't define management control across AP platforms. Even standards that are found in every product don't span the entire product feature set. "The more you standardize the more you run the risk of your product becoming a commodity," Murphy noted. He said that "everyone supports the standards," but they also add their own proprietary features.

Murphy said that the latest AirWave platform release has improved support for what the company terms a generic AP, like a consumer device that hasn't been profiled in their system and which might have limited configuration options. The platform supports the basics, like channel selection, transmission power, and security settings. The system is designed to allow system integrators to build in support for APs that AirWave might never have seen.

This support for generic APs is particularly important in an area that many companies have told AirWave is a problem: remote offices that would require an expensive service call to swap equipment or configure. The office might have a $250 Circuit City-purchased AP, but replacing it with a centrally managed homogeneous device could cost hundreds or even thousands.

Even with more wireless LAN (WLAN) devices starting to find their way into corporations, Murphy is confident AirWave has a place because the WLAN installations tend to complement existing infrastructure. Over time, AirWave will offer WLAN switch management features as well as AP management.

Murphy has noticed that WLAN networks are growing enormously in size. For instance, the Fairfax County Public Schools system is using AirWave to manage thousands of APs across more than 250 schools, and they continue to add more devices. This is not an atypical installation.

In a few years, Murphy said, all large organizations will have at least a few thousand APs to handle data, voice, and other functions. Radio frequency (RF) management will become as important as network management with the density of devices Murphy predicts. The 3.0 platform includes client software so that certain devices on the network can also read RF information and report it back. "The more ears out there, the better," Murphy said. The company has partnered with network monitoring and analysis firm AirMagnet to complement their management system.

The 3.0 release of the software can alert network managers if, for instance, a nearby access point is on an overlapping channels. In later micro-release of version 3, more automation will likely be introduced to allow the management system to make choices. "The goal is to enable the organization to determine which of those variables they want to manage automatically," Murphy said. Some companies will want alerts so they can make the decisions; others will want the software to follow rules and make changes without intervention. (The Cisco Wireless LAN Solution Engine or WLSE has extensive automated RF behavior for its IOS-based and -upgraded APs.)

The current AirWave platform is built around a few steps. A $5,000 base license supports 25 APs, and is designed for pilot projects. One of their clients uses this license to support their Network+Interop conference setup.

A professional edition includes a single-server license with no limits on APs for $30,000. Murphy said the number of APs it can handle is based entirely on the hardware limits, but that thousands could be managed from a single location. The more locations being managed, the less real-time the statistics; for very large installations, the company sells multiple-server licenses that can allow segments of a network to be monitored more effectively.