Aruba Lays Out the Grid

By Eric Griffith

August 30, 2004

The switch vendor's new architecture is said to be analogous to an electrical power grid, and is designed to be a less expensive solution for dense deployments in an enterprise.

Aruba Wireless of San Jose, Calif., today announced new products and partnerships to take advantage of an architecture which it says will keep enterprise WLAN costs down while increasing performance.

Called Wireless Grid, the system would use more access points with fewer users per AP (rather than trying to space out APs and maximize the number of users per unit). These APs would be, of course, controlled by the Aruba central switch.

"We're currently in an archaic model for deployment," says Keerti Melkote, Aruba's co-founder and Vice President of Product Marketing, of the state of WLANs today. "That comes from an age where access points were $2,000 a pop." He says that such AP architectures required costly things like site surveys to fix holes in coverage, and placing WLAN equipment in ceilings to get full signal propagation. "The cost was so high, most customers weren't able to justify deployment," he says.

The Grid architecture is not a mesh, as each AP will still connect back to the network via Ethernet.

The new Aruba 60 series APs (the 60 has detachable antennas; the 61 has integrated antennas) are software programmable to support 802.11a/b/g, though not simultaneously. Each unit has a single radio to keep costs down.

"The grid is responsible for the services provided, not each Grid point," says Melkote, referring to everything from access to voice connections, so a user on an AP using 802.11a won't interfere with one using 802.11g. "Each Grid has a specific mission," he says, depending upon how it's set up in the switch.

The Grid APs will cost only $200 per unit per year. That includes ongoing support and replacement fees if a unit goes down, but doesn't include future technology updates, such as potentially building in support for high speed pre-802.11n.

These inexpensive units present another version of "thinAPs" -- that is, access points that let most of the smarts reside on the central switch. Standardization for thinAPs took a blow last year when a potential standard called Light Weight Access Point Protocol expired. There's been talk that a replacement called CAPWAP would eventually take its place, but there's little news from that camp of the IETF. Meanwhile, companies like Aruba are making thinAPs that are proprietary to their own systems.

Melkote says that combining the costs of equipment, union labor, running cable, etc. makes putting APs in a ceiling far too cost-prohibitive. He thinks the Grid model will bring cost of deployment out of the thousands per AP to around $100 per 'Grid point.'

They're designed "to be deployed in the user's space," says Melkote, "to blend into the walls from a visual perspective."

To push this type of deployment, Aruba is entering a deal with structured cabling system provider Ortronics. The two will be coming out with a product called the Wi-Jack Wi-Fi wall outlet, which Ortronics will make specifically to support Aruba Grid products. The outlets would be built into walls as enterprises deploy Ethernet. There are two models. One has two wired Ethernet connections so you can plug in a Grid point; the other has an Ethernet jack and a single radio for either 802.11a or 802.11b/g services (access, air monitoring, etc.). Wi-Jacks should be available in late September.

Ortronics will also be an OEM of the Aruba switch. Melkote expects they'll do installations for companies that need coverage of one or two floors, and would call in Aruba and its system integrators for larger deployments.

To support the Grid, Aruba has also upgraded its signature 5000 centralized switch to model number 5100, priced at $16,000. It doubles the capacity of the switch from 1.8Gbps to 3.6Gbps, and features redundant power supplies for fail-over.

In a white paper called Rethinking the Access Point: Dense Deployments for Wireless LANs, the Farpoint Group talks at length about structured distribution systems (SDS) where multiple types of cable are pulled throughout a build to provide data, phone and even power -- but extra backhaul has often been installed for WLAN equipment to keep the APs high (in the ceiling) to propagate signals. Farpoint says "it may make sense to install access points in every few offices or cubicles, with centralized WLAN systems providing the automatic configuration, management and monitoring to automate a dense configuration that would have been essentially impossible (as well as financially infeasible) only a few years ago."



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