By CWNP On 05/13/2010 - 9 Comments

I read an article the other day that spoke of an increasing need for differentiation in the WLAN space, especially as commoditization occurs and feature parity between vendors is stabilizing. Because they’re the big kid on the block, Cisco has gotten a lot of press about their new CleanAir technology. Some folks doubt the usefulness of integrated spectrum analysis, but in my opinion, CleanAir is a good example of the kind of differentiation factor that is important in today’s WLAN marketplace.

I’ve had this differentiation topic on my mind lately, and it keeps coming back up. Some vendors are getting stale, losing leverage, and ultimately losing market share due to so-so features sets, run of the mill products, and boring marketing. It’s especially important that start-ups have differentiation, and once they have something unique technically, they need a bullhorn (that is, creative marketing) to make it known.

Let me make a few “case-in-points” to help make sense of what I’m talking about.

Ruckus Wireless has a major differentiator in the form of a dynamic hardware antenna array. First off, what Ruckus has is the culmination of multiple years of intense hardware and software engineering (kudos to the smart people there), and an obvious expertise in RF technology. Other vendors can’t replicate this without some serious R&D investment and time. Given that Ruckus has a diverse portfolio of potential customers (carrier, broadband, Wi-Fi), a strong RF specialty like this is pretty significant. Despite the fact that Ruckus is still a pretty young company, they’ve grown very quickly, largely because they have differentiated features that improve performance and flashy technology that their dynamic marketing arm can use to get attention. They stand out. They’re differentiated. They’re growing.

Aerohive has made a name for itself in architectural differentiation. Aerohive pioneered the controller-less, fully-distributed WLAN architecture, which uses protocols between APs and removes WLAN controller hardware in the process. Other than Xirrus, no one else has a fully-distributed architecture, and intelligence at the edge is a big deal. It’s a cost saver now, and will be a major deal in the next 5 years as application demands grow, more users are utilizing wireless, and 802.11ac eventually comes to market. And while we’re talking of distributed architectures, Xirrus has a multi-AP array with directional antennas—and an integrated WLAN controller—that does well in open-space, high density client environments and attracts buyers’ attention. No one else has a multi-AP antenna array solution. It’s unique, the advantages are easy to understand, and Xirrus does a good job of getting the message out. Meru has also done some interesting and innovative things. Meru tends to get the elbow to the eye from other vendors because their single channel architecture (SCA) seems counter-intuitive, but if you can take a moment to put your presumptions aside, the SCA actually solves a handful of common MCA problems. Meru’s SCA is actually one of the best solutions for stabilizing the RF layer (more on that in a minute) in many RF environments. These three vendors (Aerohive, Xirrus, and Meru) are a mixed bag in their ability to market their differentiation, but they all have something unique that can be used like a lighthouse to attract the attention of potential customers.

Cisco is differentiated because they own the majority share of wired networking, their marketing influence in the form of certification/training is unparalleled, and they step up with special solutions like CleanAir. Aruba is making an impact with remote networking (taking cookies out of others’ cookie jars while they’re at it) and appealing-to-the-government security features. In addition to that, Aruba is usually one of the first vendors to market with new features, they’re at the top of the list in feature richness (and GUI complexity), and their new Cisco-like expansion-by-acquisition mentality should help them blaze a trail with continued differentiation. These differentiators draw attention.

I hate to rag on companies, but I look out at the WLAN horizon and I see big companies like HP, Belden/Trapeze, and Enterasys/Siemens largely just loafing around. The same can be said for some small, regressed companies like Bluesocket, Proxim Wireless, and perhaps a few more. For the big companies, other than the fact that some people are already buying their other stuff (that is, infrastructure and cabling), why should customers buy from these vendors? I’m not seeing enough differentiation to pique an interest. That’s an oversimplification, of course, but you get the point. What’s newsworthy?

It’s also interesting to think about how/where differentiation is occurring. Specifically, among most progressive vendors, the playing field for L2 feature sets is evening out a bit, give or take. Some vendors have invested and excelled in QoS features, WIPS, seamless wired integration, management, control, or other areas, but I’m beginning to think that innovation at L1 will become a more significant differentiator in years to come. Everyone is talking about 802.11n replacing wired networks, and I largely agree. We’re heading in that direction. However, RF needs more stability. As RF handling improves, L2-L7 functionality is more stable and effective, especially QoS. That is why L1 differentiation is important. RF isn’t the end-game (vendors need good feature balance), but for vendors that can handle the challenges of shifting sand beneath their feet (i.e. a dynamic RF domain), they will likely have a competitive edge in application—the way we humans interact with our devices—performance and resilience. If they can do it with some style and pizzazz, they get an accelerated trip to Free Parking (pass GO and collect your $200 on the way too) and can wave bye-bye to wired client access en route.

This is just my opinion, but the best differentiation at L1 thus far has been from Ruckus (dynamic beamforming), Meru (SCA), Xirrus (directional antenna array), and Cisco (CleanAir), but not necessarily in that order. Some are better than others, and they’re not all ideal for every situation, but it all comes back to the differentiation.

Have you ever seen those wildlife shows where the schools of fish all huddle up and swim together when predators are nearby? It' their way of preventing the predators from singling them out so they don't become lunch. That analogy is applicable here as well. Vendors might not get picked on as much if they stay with the herd and don't do anything different, but at the same time, potential customers won't be able to identify the forward thinkers if Wi-Fi vendors are one big conglomeration of similarity.

From the wonderful online reference series that includes dictionary.com:

differentiation n. dif·fer·en·ti·a·tion (dĭf'ə-rěn'shē-ā'shən) — The acquisition or possession of a character or function different from that of the original type.

Tagged with: differentiation, marketing

Blog Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within these blog posts are solely the author’s and do not reflect the opinions and beliefs of the Certitrek, CWNP or its affiliates.

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