The Perils of Popularity

By Vikki Lipset

February 24, 2004

When a leading clothing retailer's data and voice WLAN started to become over-burdened with users, it turned to a startup switch vendor for a solution.

Sometimes a booming business can be bad for Wi-Fi. Just ask Pacific Sunwear . The clothing retailer has enjoyed tremendous growth over the last ten years, both in sales and number of stores. Two years ago, the company deployed a wireless LAN throughout its new corporate headquarters and distribution center in Anaheim, Calif.; it added Wi-Fi phones from SpectraLink to the mix about six months later.

As the company grew, so did the number of people using the network, and it didn't take long before PacSun's network started showing signs of growing pains. The dropped phone calls were only the beginning.

"We were having a lot of problems and a lot of complaints," recalled Ron Ehlers, vice president of Information Services at PacSun. "We added so many wireless laptops that the access points were overloaded." It got to the point where "people were carrying LAN cables around with them because they couldn't connect wirelessly to the network. It was affecting productivity."

The answer to the problem seemed fairly straightforward: add more access points (AP). While it wasn't necessarily the most attractive option, since it would involve additional wiring as well as a site survey to identify dead spots and determine where best to place the new APs, Ehlers said they "didn't know of any other solution."

That's when Meru Networks entered the picture. The Sunnyvale, Calif.-based startup assured PacSun that its WLAN system could manage a higher density of users with the same infrastructure. Meru says its access points can handle five times more users (up to 100) than a typical AP, and five times more voice calls (about 25 to 30). It also promises "zero loss" handoffs between APs.

"In their demo, they showed where they had multiple wireless phones and streaming data going over one access point with no degradation in service to either one, and that was exactly the problem that we were having," Ehlers said.

So PacSun agreed to do a trial run with Meru. They removed the 16 Cisco APs in the 180,000-square-foot corporate building and replaced them with the same number of Meru APs. The switch took less than half a day, according to Kamal Anand, vice president of sales and marketing at Meru. Both Anand and Ehlers called the transition "seamless." Ehlers added: "We didn't have to do any wiring, didn't have to change anything."

Fortunately, there were no interoperability issues with the existing equipment, either. In addition to the APs in the main office building, there are more than 20 additional Symbol access points in the 365,000-square-foot distribution center. So far, Ehlers said, the gear is all coexisting peacefully, and workers are able to cross from one building to the other without losing their connection to the network.

There are no plans to replace the Symbol APs with Meru APs at this point since the coverage in the distribution center has been sufficient, he said. He also noted that workers there are using the network for less bandwidth-intensive applications than in the main building.

"It's all transactional based, so it's just small pieces of data going back and forth over the wireless network," he explained. "In the corporate building people are using laptops; they're pulling down PowerPoint [presentations], they're on the Internet, they're downloading, so it's big chunks of data that are coming across, and that was the problem."

PacSun tested the Meru system for about six weeks. In the end, the company was impressed. "It did everything they said it would do," Ehlers said.

The connection issues and dropped calls are now a thing of the past. "We get at least five times the capability of the old APs as far as connections. The movement from access point to access point is also smoother, especially with the wireless phones as we're talking and walking at the same time."

The Meru system also included some features that the original Cisco network did not have, Ehlers said. "We get central management of all the access points rather than having to manage each AP on its own. We also get some features like visitor support." He called this a "big plus" since it means PacSun can give visitors access to the Internet without needing to put the company's encryption key on their laptop.

Overall, PacSun is one happy customer. "It was very cost-effective for us to do this and get all of these extra features and functions, rather than just keep adding more access points," Ehlers said. "It's been a real win-win-win for us."



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