Wireless LAN technology: A buyer's guide
A collection of articles that takes you from defining technology needs to purchasing options
If you are in the market for a new, locally controlled WLAN, as opposed to one that is cloud-controlled, you likely fall into one of three categories: 1) You are willing to sacrifice ease of management and new capabilities in order to get the absolute best performance; 2) your organization requires wireless users to authenticate through stringent security measures; or 3) you currently manage a locally controlled WLAN, but you want to take your time and ease into the cloud.
In this article, we will examine the leading locally controlled WLAN vendors using the purchasing criteria we established in the previous article:
- Performance needs
- WLAN security options
- Deployment flexibility
- Ease of management
The top locally controlled wireless LAN vendors we'll be looking at today are Aerohive, Aruba/HP, Cisco and Ruckus Wireless. While each WLAN product gives the end user wireless connectivity, there are distinct differences that can turn a good WLAN into a great WLAN.
WLAN performance needs
Performance is important to anyone who uses a WLAN. But in some situations, it's more important than others. When we refer to WLAN performance, we're talking about optimal transmit and receive throughput over wireless signals. The IEEE standards provide the theoretical limits of each 802.11 protocol. For example, 802.11g has a theoretical maximum physical bit rate of 54 Mbps. In comparison, the latest 802.11ac Wave 2 protocol can reach maximum theoretical bit rates of 2.34 Gbps. But it's important to note that these bit rates are never actually achieved in real world deployments. Factors including distance to the wireless access point, number of clients associated to an AP, wireless signal congestion and physical obstructions all lower the actual throughput significantly.
To help minimize loss of performance, wireless LAN vendors use various techniques with their wireless chips and antennas to squeeze the most performance out. For example, Cisco integrates spectrum intelligence directly onto the wireless chipset so the radio can detect and move around wireless interference. Some vendors use antenna technologies such as Ruckus BeamFlex, which uses a multi-element antenna design to steer the wireless signal around obstructions. If your organization requires that wireless users have the highest performance for certain applications -- or if your environment has a great deal of interference, which can severely degrade consumer-grade and lower-end enterprise-grade wireless equipment -- then you need to choose a vendor that is serious about WLAN performance.
The vendor that has traditionally been the most successful in wireless performance is Ruckus Wireless. Ruckus tends to perform very well in independent WLAN performance tests in terms of optimizing client throughput in real world stress test scenarios. Its BeamFlex smart antenna array has revolutionized how a WLAN can intelligently route wireless signal around problematic areas. While each AP is generally more expensive than competing units, Beamflex provides better performance and better overall wireless coverage. This means you deploy fewer APs, which can reduce overall cost of ownership in large deployments. Cisco comes in second to Ruckus, but is clearly further behind. This is because wireless LAN vendors like Cisco and Aruba tend to focus on the wireless chipset to improve wireless performance, while Ruckus is the only vendor that focuses on physical antenna modifications.
WLAN vendors' security options
For many companies, network security has become a top priority. In terms of wireless security, tools like network access control (NAC) are commonly used for authentication or authorization when providing access to end users. NAC not only performs various user/device authentication checks, but it can be used to perform operating system (OS) and application posture assessments prior to the device ever being allowed onto the network. NAC is different from a mobile device management tool that only enforces network policies for wireless devices. An NAC tool can enforce both wired and wireless endpoints, which is important for security-conscious organizations that want to treat all endpoints, both wired and wireless, with the same security measures.
If your organization already has a NAC solution like Cisco's Identity Service Engine, you may want to consider using an end-to-end WLAN and NAC system for easier integration. Other vendors, such as Ruckus and Aerohive, are wireless niche vendors and do not offer end-to-end network infrastructure products like Cisco can. HP/Aruba is expected to release a more tightly integrated solution -- especially since the two companies recently merged and HP is seeking to grab a larger share of the overall network infrastructure market.
Traditional locally controlled WLANs were designed to tunnel all traffic back to a centralized controller where it was then sent out onto the wired network. But in enterprise environments that have many remote sites, a more optimal solution is to use controllers to manage the configuration functions of the AP, and then let the wireless data be offloaded directly on to the wire at the remote site. All of the WLAN vendors discussed in this article have this capability, but some like Aerohive and Aruba consider it a primary feature and largely recommend network architects design and deploy this architecture by default. Both Aerohive and Aruba also offer the ability to use the same AP hardware for both on-premises and public cloud deployments. So, you can start with an on-premises WLAN and then migrate over to the cloud as time permits.
Ease of WLAN management
When planning to deploy a locally controlled WLAN, understanding how to best manage the system should be a key concern. Many network administrators might be great at routing and switching, but fewer excel at managing and troubleshooting enterprise-class WLANs, which can be extremely complex. Both Cisco and Ruckus have incredibly intricate systems that can be finely tuned to meet the needs of almost any WLAN environment. Technologies such as Cisco CleanAir and RF grouping offer more advanced features, but are more complex to manage. Both companies offer add-on management tools like Cisco Prime or Ruckus SmartZone to help ease the pain of large-scale WLAN management, as long as you're willing to pay the extra cost. If you're looking for a more simplified solution that's easier to manage, look at companies like Aerohive or Aruba. The interfaces on these two solutions are much more streamlined and allow for an easy, single pane of glass configuration and troubleshooting interface that can work well in a large number of WLAN deployment scenarios.
Which WLAN vendor is right for you?
Despite the growing popularity of cloud-controlled WLAN architectures, there are still legitimate reasons for deploying a locally controlled WLAN architecture. If your purchase is driven by a need for extra performance requirements or tight integration with enterprise security solutions, look toward vendors like Ruckus Wireless and Cisco. Or, perhaps you don't want to waste time and money completely re-architecting your wired LAN yet want the flexibility to migrate to the cloud at a gradual pace using existing equipment. Vendors like Aerohive and Aruba have simpler, easy-to-manage WLAN options. This article should give you a good idea of which WLAN vendors are best suited for your enterprise.
Differentiate between capacity and wireless throughput.
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Discover more about Aerohive's wireless portfolio.
Discover how changes in the 802.11ac standard drive WLAN architectures.