Wired and Wireless Networks Converge

Small business networks aren’t as simple as they used to be. You probably have a mixture of wired and wireless devices, and maybe you’re contemplating a move to VoIP (if you haven’t already). Managing it all doesn’t have to be complicated, according to 3Com Corp.

Offering what it claims is a first for small and mid-sized businesses, the Marlborough, Mass.-based company today announced the 3Com Unified Gigabit Wireless PoE Switch 24, which is designed to let you manage all networking functions through one integrated device.

“Unified switches are new, and current products lack real integration,” 3Com Product Marketing Manager Howard Rubin said. He added that the Unified Gigabit Wireless PoE Switch 24 offers features previously found only in enterprise-class switches, but does so in a way that makes the device easy to deploy and manage. In fact, Rubin said, a wizard lets you configure the switch for your network in five clicks and offers a variety of management interfaces suited for different types of users.

The switch’s 24 ports all support Power over Ethernet (PoE). Rubin said that “POE is still kind of new, and lots of small businesses don’t quite know what it does.” The advantage of POE is that by providing electrical power over your Ethernet network, it’s simpler to power wireless access point and VoIP telephones, for example.

Unified Gigabit Wireless PoE Switch 24
3Com promises that its new unified switch manages all network devices through one box.

The switch is aimed at businesses that have between five and 250 people on the network, but 100 seems to ideal size for potential customers, Rubin said. Companies in that category tend to have networks that could benefit from the switch’s features, but also have limited resources to manage their networks.

While the product category may be new, small businesses already see the need, according to Alan Miano, a product manager at 3Com. “SMBs understand the need to be secure and are asking for this kind of product. They are quite savvy and are saying, ‘I only want to do this once’,” Miano said.

To help you more easily manage wireless access points, Rubin said, the company’s access points ship with dual-mode capability that lets the devices function as a FAT access point, in which all the intelligence is stored independently on the access point, or in FIT mode, in which case the intelligence is moved to a central controller such as 3Com’s Unified Switch for SMBs. “You can push configurations to every access point and also determine if there are rogue APs on your network.” The Unified Switch’s user-interface is designed to let you set access points to either FAT or FIT network devices with a single mouse click.

The unified switch supports up to 24 access points, but Rubin said the typical SMB probably has eight to 10. This leaves you room to grow and add other IP devices, he said. If you do move voice traffic over your network, you can set up a virtual LAN to prioritize VoIP traffic automatically.

The switch offers WPA2 security and AES encryption and support for emerging standards such as 802.11n. 802.11n is a not-yet-ratified wireless standard that’s designd to offer better throughput over longer distances. Several makers of consumer-grade access points already offer 802.11n products, but there’s no guarantee those products with work properly once the standard is ratified.

For that reason, Miano said, 3Com doesn’t offer 802.11n access points. “If we sold that [802.11n products] to the SMB market, they would have to upgrade in three months. They want to wait. It’s not like they have one router and just want to play games.”

The list price for the unified switch is $2,750, but Rubin said the street price will probably be less than $2,000. The 3Com Unified Switch is available from 3Com resellers and partners. Rubin notes that because the device provides a single IP address for network management, small businesses will have also be able to easily outsource their network management to a managed service provider.

Dan Muse is executive editor of internet.com’s Small Business Channel, EarthWeb’s Networking Channel and ServerWatch.

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