Review: Ruckus Wireless ZoneFlex 7942 Access Point

By Gerry Blackwell

May 14, 2008

Ruckus Wireless delivers an impressive new 11n access point that works with the company’s ZoneDirector central controllers.

Ruckus Wireless ZoneFlex 7942

www.ruckuswireless.com

MSRP: $700

Pros: Centrally managed multimedia 802.11n AP, excellent range, strong security with Dynyamic PSK.

Cons: Performance is good, but not exceptional.

Ruckus Wireless, a four-year-old maker of enterprise and service provider Wi-Fi infrastructure equipment, has moved into the 11n mesh networking arena with its ZoneFlex 7942 access point ($700), which it’s billing as the first centrally managed multimedia Wi-Fi 802.11n access point.

The ZoneFlex 7942 works with the company’s ZoneDirector Wi-Fi controllers to set up meshed networks of access points in a work place, hotspot, or hot zone. Like all the Ruckus products, the 7942 uses the company’s BeamFlex smart antenna technology, which it says delivers a three-times increase in performance and range, and eight-times expanded coverage in 11a, g, and b networks.

The 7942 supports all current Wi-Fi security technologies, including Ruckus’s patented Dynamic PSK. It has two 10/100/1000 Ethernet ports, one of them supporting Power over Ethernet (PoE). The APs can be managed individually in the absence of a ZoneDirector, but in larger installations, the controller will easily repay the investment in time and trouble saved.

Setup

We had a chance to test the ZoneFlex 7942 with a ZoneDirector 1000 ($1,200), a product Ruckus describes as the first “IT lite” centralized control system for multimedia Wi-Fi access points. It’s intended for use by small and medium-sized businesses and hot zone operators as an upgrade from simple systems that use stand-alone—and therefore difficult to manage—access points.

Our test bed was a little different than the typical environment in which this equipment is meant to be used. We set up the ZoneDirector 1000 and two of the 7942 APs in a residence. This may actually be a stress test of sorts given that a home is nothing like as open as most offices. The router used was a Netgear unit with four gigabit Ethernet ports—we turned its Wi-Fi radio off.

The ZoneDirector 1000 lets a network administrator use a browser-based console to manage as many as 50 ZoneFlex access points—there are other ZoneFlex APs besides the new 7942, but the 7942 is the first 11n AP in the portfolio with the automatic meshing capabilities. The ZoneDirector 3000 ($3,500) can manage up to 250 APs.

Configuring the ZoneDirector was pretty simple. It’s a UPnP device. Once you power it up and plug it into an Ethernet port on your network, it will show up in My Network Places on any connected Windows PC—assuming the PC has Show Icons for UPnP Devices turned on.

Clicking on the icon in My Network Places launches a wizard that guides you through the process of setting up an administrative account, entering an initial security passphrase and other basic steps.zoneflex2942-door-up.jpg

Adding access points to the network is also fairly easy. You first configure the APs by plugging them directly into a PC Ethernet port and using a browser-based interface to customize basic wireless settings. Giving the wireless network a distinct SSID is a little tedious since you have to change the SSID field and click a check box to enable the radio in each of eight tabs for the different subnets the APs can support.

Once you plug the APs into the network, they automatically discover the ZoneDirector and are under the ZoneDirector’s control. From its console you can then configure APs without having to directly connect to them, simplifying tasks such as updating firmware and configuring security—especially in larger networks with many APs, and especially when APs are distributed in a mesh network at some distance from the network control center.

The ZoneDirector console also displays the real time status of the network—which access points are connected, how they’re connected (wired, wireless mesh) and which clients are connected to which APs. And it reports activity on the network in real time and logs it—activity, such as APs and clients joining and dropping off the network and, especially important, detection of rogue access points.

Rogues could be unauthorized access points set up by employees in your own facility, APs operated by hackers trying to spoof your users, or perfectly innocent APs in neighbouring offices that might nevertheless impact network performance.

What sets it apart

Ruckus boasts some important differentiators. Its meshing technology, it says, is more fully automated than others. After setting up a 7942 on the network while it’s plugged into an Ethernet port, you can then unplug it from the router, position it anywhere and as soon as it’s powered up it will start the process of discovering the optimum wireless route back to the network router through however many other APs it takes.

We saw this in action, although a two-AP network hardly stretches the technology’s capabilities very far in this regard, and on a couple of occasions we had to reboot the AP before it began the process. It took several seconds to establish a one-hop mesh connection. Ruckus claims its beam-steering antenna technology offers important advantages in finding and establishing mesh pathways in larger networks.

The company’s Dynamic PSK security technology is another key differentiator. It lets administrators automatically configure each client on the network with a separate 63-character encryption key and records and tracks keys for all. The approach too often taken, because it’s easier, is to use one key for all users. If the key is compromised—by an employee leaving the firm, for example—it has to be changed on each client. With the Ruckus system, the administrator can simply deactivate a compromised key.

Performance

To test network performance with the ZoneFlex 7942, we experimented with placing the second AP in various locations around the house—one was always plugged into an Ethernet port on the router. To test throughput, we used the Zap network speed measurement utility supplied by Ruckus. It measured impressively high throughput of UDP (User Datagram Protocol) packets—in the range of 90 to 95 megabits per second (Mbps) at the 50 percentile mark. This supposedly shows typical real-world throughput with a medium-strength connection.

Results from a real-world test were less impressive, but inconclusive. The test involved sending a large file (437MB) from one client to another and measuring the time it took with a stop watch.

In a control run, we sent the file between two clients connected directly to the network by Gigabit Ethernet cable—so not using the Ruckus APs at all. The throughput measured was only 48 Mbps, far lower than expected. Ruckus suggested that part of this could be network overhead imposed by Windows File Sharing, a standard protocol used for transferring files over a Windows network.

We repeated the test using the same two clients, a desktop PC that we left attached to the router by Gigabit Ethernet cable, and an IBM laptop equipped with a D-Link Draft n network card. Results were inconsistent. In most runs, throughput was about 48 Mbps, the same as with the Gigabit Ethernet test, clearly showing that the wireless network was not the bottleneck. But on others, throughput dropped to 27 Mbps, even in one case when the laptop was in the same room as the AP with it was associated.

With other draft n access point and router products we’ve tested, results of throughput tests were heavily impacted by the distance of the client from the AP. This was much less a factor in testing the Ruckus gear, suggesting superior range and coverage, as Rucks claims. On the other hand, in stress testing network range—by moving away from the APs and noting when network connectivity was lost—the Ruckus gear performed no better than other 11n gear we’ve tested.

Bottom line: Based on the UDP throughput tests, the ZoneFlex 7942 performs significantly better than the consumer/small business draft 802.11n gear we’ve reviewed in the past. Real-world file transfer tests were less conclusive, but the Ruckus gear performed at least as well as other products in these tests, better than many.

For a growing small or medium-sized business, or a hot zone operator, such as a hotel, the Ruckus automated meshing technology and the central control afforded by the ZoneDirector could deliver huge benefits in network management productivity and network reliability.

Gerry Blackwell is a frequent contributor to Wi-FiPlanet.

Originally published on .

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