New WLAN Controllers Target SMBs

By Eric Griffith

May 21, 2007

Ruckus Wireless and Netgear products for small to medium businesses will provide enterprise-class Wi-Fi control without enterprise Wi-Fi prices.

The Wi-Fi controller (née switch) market has long been the province of big corporations with RF-trained IT staff. But two vendors -- Netgear and Ruckus Wireless -- today announced plans for product lines targeting budget-conscious small to medium businesses (SMBs) seeking wireless mobility.

Netgear is no stranger to small offices with its ProSafe line of access points (APs), but the new ProSafe Smart Wireless Switch (model WFS709TP) will be the company’s first to centrally manage those APs, up to 16 per controller, with 48 total per network.

“The product has a built-in RF planning tool,” says Vivek Chugh, senior product line manager at Netgear. Users can input floor plans and other information, and the software will indicate the best placement of the APs. 

Like just about any controller, it is primarily about centralized control, handling features like load-balancing or rogue AP detection from a single console. Netgear has even integrated location-based control, so the network administrator can track items or users across the network.

Existing ProSafe APs like the WG102 and WAG102 can be run by the ProSafe Smart Wireless Switch out of the box. Netgear will offer light versions of each AP, as well as the “smart” versions that exist currently for standalone use. The light AP lets the controller do all the heavy thinking for it. The controller will retail for $2,099.

Netgear also announced new network attached storage and wired switches today, all utilizing gigabit Ethernet ports -- a feature lacking on the wireless controller. Rumor has it that Netgear may also be planning to sell femtocells to extend cellular single indoors, but the company has not confirmed any such plans.

Netgear didn’t do all the design on its controller in-house, working instead with a partner. Chugh says he can’t name who they worked with due to a non-disclosure agreement, only that it’s a big name in existing WLAN controllers.

Ruckus Wireless, on the other hand, didn’t turn to anyone for its designs for a new WLAN controller and AP family for the company -- its first foray into SMBs (and hotzone operators) after servicing homes with units for IPTV (MediaFlex) and mesh-network extension (MetroFlex).

That’s because key to its new ZoneFlex controller-based architecture with new smart APs is the same technology that’s been key to every Ruckus product: its beam-steering, smart antenna system called BeamFlex. It’s built into the ZoneFlex APs, and can wrap a signal around interference to better reach users and other APs. That latter part is key, as ZoneFlex APs will rely on mesh networking using 802.11n to connect back to the controller.

“[The APs are] smart enough to configure themselves into a network without site surveys,” says Ruckus CEO and president Selina Lo.

“We’re not competing with Tropos, BelAir or Cisco, or any of our partners -- this mesh is for the enterprise,” says Lo. “We’re enabling the ability to mesh up to 10 APs in a wireless cluster -- you only need one Ethernet drop.”

For security, Ruckus will work with existing authentication servers but builds in a database for up to 1,250 users in the controller just in case. Instead of worrying about giving each user a Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) pre-shared key (PSK) to enter to get encrypted signals from the network, Ruckus makes encryption brain-dead easy with its new Dynamic PSK. “If a user hasn’t logged on before, they have to plug in to be sent to a captive portal,” says Lo. “They’ll sign in once, and then the controller puts an applet on the user’s device, which includes the network SSID and a unique encryption key code. The code is only known to the device and the controller.”

There will be functions to allow users on as guests as well, with a code that expires after a pre-determined time. If someone leaves, the admin just removes their name from the database, so there’s no need to reconfigure the PSK. “We want it hassle-free,” says Lo. It will also do rogue AP detection and handle a blacklist of undesired client devices. It will adjust AP power level and channel use on the fly as needed when the BeamFlex antennas aren’t enough to avoid interference.

A single, high-end Ruckus controller -- there will be three versions, called ZoneDirectors -- will run up to 25 APs. It will cost $3,500. A 12 AP version will run $2,000, and a six AP version only $1,200. They’ll all be available in July. They only have two 10/100 Ethernet ports, so running multiple APs with wired connections will require another wired switch.

There will be two ZoneFlex APs. The first is in the company’s traditional, tabletop “clip” shape: model 2925 for $259, available in June. The redesigned-for-business model 2942, for $349, follows in July. Lo says “it looks like a light bulb,” so it blends in. It also features both horizontal and vertical antenna elements, to provide 12 antennas in total for better coverage.

Coming later this year, Ruckus plans to have an AP that uses 11n to talk to clients, plus a full software management system called FlexMaster.

“We built this for the SMBs from the ground up,” says Lo. While big name WLAN controller vendors do have some SMB bundles, she says, “They haven’t solved the problem that their products are equally complex to configure as at the high end. Not everyone has IT resources.”

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