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Mesh networking questions still without answers

Large-scale wireless LAN deployments can be problematic. It can be expensive to cover large campuses and small towns with enough access points to provide a useful network. Access points don't transmit through tall thick buildings. And running wires to remote outdoor access points can be so expensive that it's not worth it.

However, a half a dozen startups are working with a new architecture for wireless LAN (WLAN) called mesh networking. It allows communication between multiple access points without the data ever traveling over a wire. That way, information can travel wirelessly over long distances before hitting an access point on the wired network. Some systems even use devices to relay data.

Stan Schatt, a research director with Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research Inc., recently authored a brief on the subject titled, "Mesh Networks Could Disrupt the Wireless Landscape." sat down with Schatt to learn more.

Why is mesh networking an appealing alternative to today's WLAN architectures?
It offers a robustness that you can't get with traditional networking. It offers the ability to cover distances that you couldn't cover with a traditional WLAN. It allows you to route data around obstacles, and that is very important for public safety organizations. It does not require a line-of-sight to connect. And it usually allows devices to fail over to 2.5G or 3G networks.

 The mesh network requires a lot of access points, so deploying in a mesh architecture can be expensive.
Stan Schatt, Forrester Research,

What are the drawbacks?
The mesh network requires a lot of access points, so deploying in a mesh architecture can be expensive. The other question is scalability. In a very large network there would be so much routing information moving from access point to access point, it would be unclear how much these networks can scale and maintain their bandwidth for users. Are there security concerns with using a device as a router?
They use a proprietary algorithm for encryption, so the security issues have been largely worked out. What about reliability?
The access points are always on, so it is always there to forward information. The networks are reliable. The real issues are cost, scalability and vendor viability. These systems are all offered by small companies. Should that be a concern?
The vendors are all very small. I think there will be [vendor] consolidation. Unless these companies can get out of the narrow vertical of public safety, they will never be able to grow. But we are starting to see traditional WLAN vendors begin to offer them. Nortel Networks, for example, has a product that it has at least labeled a mesh network. As major vendors begin to offer this technology, we will see even more consolidation in the market.

For more information

Learn how mesh networks are weaving their way into WLAN realm.

Read about Cisco taking Wi-Fi to town.

Mesh networks are not using a standard. Should businesses be concerned about that?
There are special circumstances for certain verticals that require action right away. And they can justify the cost. Everyone else can wait. It is the same thing with the switched WLAN. In general, 802.11 has grown faster in verticals like manufacturing, warehousing and health care. They can cost-justify the technology easily. The growth in the horizontal market, where it is harder to justify the cost, has been slow. The same is true with this technology. It will follow the same road map, will start out in the verticals and will take a long time to gain traction in other verticals and horizontal applications. Is mesh networking an exclusive technology, or can it be incorporated with a traditional WLAN architecture?
Right now, they would not work well together because there is no way to manage a mesh network and a traditional network as one unit. Because of the way it is designed, you have to have a gateway between them. A mesh network is not pure 802.11, so it does not integrate well. What kinds of organizations might consider mesh networks?
Public safety organizations, fire and police departments and municipalities that want to set up a citywide network. Not too many other verticals have jumped at it yet.

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