Aruba brings Wi-Fi down from the ceiling

Aruba Wireless Networks Inc. is announcing a radical change of direction in its Wi-Fi systems. Instead of putting a limited number of access points (APs) in the ceiling, the wireless switch vendor’s new Wi-Fi Grid system will plug a much bigger number of tiny “grid points” into floor-level network outlets as part of the main network infrastructure — and include an access point built right into a network wall socket.

Aruba’s reasoning is that access points are cheap to make but current systems make them expensive to install, so it has decided on a system designed around flooding the office with cheap multi-purpose access points, and adding enough central intelligence to sort out smooth coverage without a site survey. The new range includes low-cost 802.11a/b/g access points, and a central switch, the Aruba 5100 which can manage twice as many access points as the existing 5000 box.

“The notion of deploying APs in ceilings is expensive,” said Keerti Melkote, vice-president of marketing at Aruba. “It lets the user minimize the number of access points, but it leads to a high total cost of ownership.”

The idea of putting access points in the ceiling is intended to get maximum coverage from each access point so users can install fewer of them, but this thinking is obsolete in a world where APs are cheap, said Melkote. He reckons with a site survey, pulling network and power cables and maintenance, it costs US$1,500 to put an access point in the ceiling while the new approach can put them at floor level in available network outlets for US$125 each.

“The site survey is a requirement from the time when access points were expensive,” said Melkote. “Access points have got cheaper but best practices haven’t changed.” Less coverage per AP gives better performance too, he says, since an access point that covers a smaller area — maybe even a single cube in an office — will have fewer clients sharing it. Access points will be about 30 feet apart in an office with hard walls and 50 feet apart in an open plan office, said Melkote, compared with 100 feet in current installations.

Aruba plans to sell its new Wi-Fi Grid differently to current systems, including deals with network integrators and outsourcers. To fit network outsourcing deals, the product is available on a monthly fee of about US$200 per access point.

Aruba’s first partner, U.S.-based structured cabling company Ortronics Inc., owned by France’s Legrand group, has built a Grid AP into a wall jack with two Ethernet ports, which will be available in September. “The first iteration is a bit bigger than a conventional jack, but it will look like a conventional jack,” said Melkote.

“We always wanted to deliver a solution that looks like the wired network, and dumb ports in the wall, look like a utility. It’s the logical conclusion of the vision we had.”

Despite being “structured”, the Wi-Fi Grid is designed to reduce planning, and in particular the highly-skilled work of radio-frequency site surveys and the labor intensive job of pulling network and power cables into ceiling spaces. Once the office is flooded with Grid points, the switch uses them flexibly, to provide network access via 802.11a, 802.1b or 802.11g, as well as other jobs including signal monitoring, security functions and location tracking.

Multi-function access points have been around for some time, with Aruba, Airespace Inc. and others selling the idea of APs that can monitor for rogue access points as well as providing access, but the idea has been limited, since an AP on sentry duty can’t provide network access and vice versa. “The implementation has been time-sliced — monitoring steals resources from access,” said Melkote. Using time on access points reduces their throughput by about 30 per cent, he said: serious Wi-Fi network users have tended to use dedicated probes, from vendors like Red-M or AirDefense Inc.

In the Grid system, the switch assigns duties dynamically, but each access point is dedicated to one task at any given time. “Every service gets dedicated cycles,” said Melkote. “There is no time slicing on the network.” Where there are overlaps, the system will react by turning down the power from one station — a requirement of 802.11h, the harmonized version of 802.11a required in Europe.

Services are turned on only when they are required, said Melkote: “It’s like turning the light on in a conference room”. For instance, 802.11a would light up when users with new notebooks show up (yes, 802.11a is back from the dead), and it will be easy to roll out new access points with the faster 802.11n standard when that arrives in about two years, Melkote said.

Meanwhile, the company’s existing products will still be on sale, particularly for low-end installations. “It’s not a forklift upgrade,” he says, suggesting that users can add Grid points to boost an existing network.

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