Aruba WLAN at Microsoft Exceeds 11,000 Access Points

By Jeff Goldman

June 17, 2008

The company’s wireless network has more than doubled in size over the past three years--though a new RFI/RFP for an 802.11n network is planned for December of this year.

Aruba Networks recently announced that Microsoft has deployed more than 11,000 access points in its Aruba wireless LAN. “The sheer scale of the centralized Aruba system, spanning as it does across virtually every continent, makes it one of the largest enterprise wireless networks in the world,” the company stated at the time, noting that the centrally managed network now serves more than 80,000 users worldwide.

The current WLAN is an expansion of a deployment initiated back in 2005, when Microsoft anticipated a 5,000-AP network serving just over 25,000 users.

“In the intervening couple of years, things changed quite a bit, both in terms of the scope of what the network was going to be used for as well as the overall size,” says Mike Tennefoss, Aruba’s head of strategic marketing. “It more than doubled in terms of its total size–and it’s still growing.”

And in the three years since the initial Microsoft deployment, Tennefoss says, Aruba has significantly increased the power of its platform.

“The Aruba 6000 controller module offers today about ten times the performance of the units that were shipped originally in 2005–so a fully loaded controller now has 80 gigabit throughput, where it was about 8 gigabit at the time of the original sale… and because our controllers are modular, it’s a matter of removing an old controller module and plugging in a new one if you want to take advantage of the new features,” he says.

Similarly, he says, Aruba’s access points are easily upgraded.

“Over the network, you can repurpose an access point and allow it to perform new tasks—where today it might be an access point, you could repurpose it as a security sensor, or you could convert it into a mesh access point,” Tennefoss says. “Let’s say, for example, you wanted to cover some outbuildings or some outdoor areas, and there was no way of getting wiring to those locations… you could take an Aruba access point, download new software into it, and convert it into a mesh device so that the signal will hop wirelessly from access point to access point with no wires in between.”

Overall, Tennefoss says there are a number of key advantages inherent in any wireless workplace.

“Cutting the cord and moving to an all-wireless deployment brings tremendous benefits to the enterprise in terms of reduced operating expenses… and it gives employees the opportunity to be more productive, to have workgroups that are larger and in different places than they might originally have worked—and, basically, to give them the freedom to choose where and when they work and not force them to huddle around a port connection on a wall.”

For Microsoft in particular, company network architect Victoria Poncini says the results have been impressive.

“Today, more than 75 percent of our employees use the wireless LAN every day, and 72 percent said they could work without any wires at all,” she says. “93 percent of users can use their computers in new locations because of the enhanced mobility afforded by the wireless LAN, and 70 percent of employees said the network saved them at least five work hours a week because of increased flexibility.”

That said, Aruba’s relationship with Microsoft is far from secure—Poncini says the company is planning to issue another RFI/RFP for an upgrade to an 802.11n network at the end of this year.

“It’s been about every four years that we’ve gone out and reassessed what’s available for Wi-Fi enterprise technology,” she says.

And the management of the network itself, Poncini says, remains a key challenge.

“The weak link in the WLAN offerings from a lot of vendors is the ability to manage these huge enterprise-wide WLAN deployments centrally, so that you have a centralized view and can drill down from that centralized view to provide information on the number of clients that you have, outages that are affecting your network in multiple client areas, the RF health of the system—all of those things still are lagging behind the Wi-Fi technology,” she says. “That’s an area that, if vendors could provide the most improvement, it would really help towards providing an all-wireless office—and that’s something that we want to do with 802.11n.”

To that end, Poncini says Aruba’s recent acquisition of AirWave Wireless was a promising step.

“The combination of the AirWave platform with their current offering, and what they’re trying to do to integrate the two of them together, is a really good start towards providing what we would like to see in network management,” she says.

Regardless of what happens next, Aruba’s Tennefoss says Microsoft’s interest in providing an all-wireless office is a good sign for everyone in the wireless industry.

“Here you have the largest software company in the world, with a deployment across 60 countries, saying, ‘Look, we’ve made this investment in wireless—it’s clearly scalable, it’s reliable enough, and our employees are using it and adopting it,’” he says. “It’s not just a nice-to-have feature—it’s become business-critical.”

Jeff Goldman is a veteran technology writer and frequent contributor to Wi-FiPlanet. He is based in Los Angeles.



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