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Building Better Wi-Fi for your Business

Wi-Fi usage around the world is literally exploding, as can be evidenced in recent reports of how smartphones and tablets are driving global increase in Wi-Fi hotspots.  As these very devices head into corporate networks to jostle with laptops and wireless-enabled desktops, businesses are finding themselves having to support the heavier network load. 

To understand more about Wi-Fi use in business, I arranged a meeting with executives from the Ruckus Wireless, a vendor that specializes in Wi-Fi access points and wireless LAN (WLAN) management systems. 

I first came across Ruckus Wireless in a review published on Tom's Hardware that benchmarked an Access Point (AP) from Ruckus with those from Cisco and Aruba.  At that time, the Ruckus AP was the only device capable of exceeding 100Mbps actual throughput, and was heads and shoulders faster in the tests that were conducted. 

It was no surprise hence that the Sunnyvale, California-based company was tagged by Gartner in the "Visionaries" quadrant of the 2011 Magic Quadrant for Wireless LAN infrastructure.  Another interesting fact is how the company provides the devices to hook up the IPTV residential gateways for SingTel's mio TV service.

I spoke with Asia Pacific (APAC) vice president Louis Au, director of APAC marketing Christ Yip and Vasudevan Venkatakrishnan, who is the head of pre-sales in APAC.

Deploying Wi-Fi in business

To start off our conversation, Au offered a couple of pointers to help businesses roll out a successful wireless deployment.  According to him, the two most important factors would be to first define the intended usage of a Wi-Fi network, followed by the implementation of a planning phase.

The former entails working out the number of users and determining whether users will be light or heavy users. This can sometimes be derived from the physical location for wireless access; a school auditorium and a public location for example, can expect to see far heavier usage than that of a small meeting room.  The planning phase should also include the removal of old Wi-Fi points.  Clearly, it is not the case of "the more the better" here, given how too many overlapping APs can cause interference issues to arise.

Not all APs are created equal

Given the sheer number of wireless vendors out there, I was naturally curious about what differentiates one AP from another.  Venkatakrishnan replied that the company's products can deliver more consistent and reliable throughput than specified by the standards.  He told me, "We implement technology on top of the standard to deliver the speeds.  We are able to excel compared to the consumer products, and compared to other vendors even in the enterprise and business space."

Yip added that the company had "a lot of feedback" from businesses that start off with "SOHO grade" hardware, implying that businesses may find themselves stuck with wireless equipment that lack the features and capacity that they require.

Au pointed out that the cost of buying the wrong AP is very high, in certain organizations such as a school, for example.  Without specifying brands, Au also added that there are APs "out there" which will lower the speed once they hit a certain number of users.  According to Au, other important considerations when choosing a wireless AP would be its reliability, ability to deal with interference and maintain a good throughput.

And unlike many other enterprise vendors, Ruckus maintains a shared feature set across its range of products.  This means that new capabilities found in firmware upgrades are bestowed across all Ruckus-branded APs.  The only difference resides in the onboard hardware capabilities of an AP – such as whether it is an indoor or outdoor unit, RF performance, and whether it has single-band or dual-band support.

The misconception about interference

Interference is a topic one can expect to have to deal with when it comes to wireless technologies. Unfortunately, misconceptions on this front are common.  Au asserted to me that: "In a room that is devoid of interference, every vendor will do a good job."  The most common misconception about interference, elaborated Yip, is that a strong signal yields strong throughput. This line of thought completely ignores interference from neighboring networks however, which could decrease performance substantially.

"You increase the power, you increase noise; the objective is to reduce noise," quipped Venkatakrishnan.  Given that neighboring APs are not manageable by you, a better-placed question that IT managers should ask themselves is: "How do I deliver a quality signal with minimum power required, without creating interference and managing interference." 

Putting paid to the concept of that AP range is all-important; Au says that an AP with an extended range is not always useful, especially when paired with low-power client devices such as a Wi-Fi enabled smartphone.  With this in mind, Au concluded that measuring the actual wireless throughput is "more important."

Gigabit Wireless

With faster wireless technology just round the corner, a number of CIOs and business owners are probably debating on the merits of investing in current-gen 802.11n wireless today.  For those who are not aware, the Wireless Gigabit Alliance (WiGig) has already published the initial specifications for gigabit wireless in the unlicensed 60GHz spectrum in May this year.  On this front, all three were unanimous that gigabit wireless should not be any deterrence towards companies rolling out their Wi-Fi infrastructures.

The overall consensus is that 802.11n, "will stay for another four to five years," and will probably also coexist for a little while with gigabit wireless networks.  Au illustrated his point by pointing out that mobile operators will hardly give up on 3G networks immediately even with the introduction of 4G.  He did admit however, that it is still too early to talk about a migration path.  As a final reason why businesses should not hold back from Wi-Fi deployments today, Venkatakrishnan says there is a possibility that gigabit wireless could be used as a complementary technology that is used in tandem with 2.5 GHz and 5.0 GHz Wi-Fi.

Businesses interested in products from Ruckus Wireless can contact Ruckus Singapore via email [email protected] or phone at +65 68292319.

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