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The aesthetics of wireless access point design and placement

The physical appearance of wireless LAN access points is becoming more important for enterprises. Meru Networks has launched a new family of subtle and compact access points with internal antennas, which will allow at least one hotel to adopt voice over WLAN (VoWLAN) without worrying about wireless access point placement.

When the Westin Boston Waterfront Hotel began exploring voice over WLAN (VoWLAN) the IT team found itself struggling with an increasingly common challenge -- the aesthetics of wireless LAN access points.

Aesthetics rarely make their way into the RFP process for corporate wired networks, but that's because engineers can usually hide their switches in a wiring closet. Wireless LAN access point placement is another matter altogether.

"In a hotel environment, everything is branded and everything has to have a certain look," said Gabriel Larralde, IT director of the Westin Boston Waterfront Hotel. "We needed to have [wireless LAN access points whose] look and feel fit in well with the look of the hotel. Today, we have certain access points that are in an open area, like in the convention center exhibition space. You can see the access points."

Hotels like the Westin are not alone in the need for aesthetically pleasing wireless LAN access points.

"We used to put access points up in air plenums and such where they were hidden," said Craig Mathias, principal at wireless consultancy Farpoint Group. But dropped ceilings and air plenums aren't universal. Sometimes, wireless access points will go in places where they just can't be hidden.

Most wireless LAN access point vendors have responded by designing new access points with specially designed internal antennas and low profiles, giving them what Mathias describes as the "smoke detector look."

Meru Networks this month introduced the i-Series, its first line of aesthetic wireless LAN access points with internal antennas. The first model in the line is the AP320i, an internal-antenna, dual-radio 802.11n access point.

More on wireless LAN access points
How to plan for 802.11n wireless LAN access point upgrades.

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How to set up secure 802.11x wireless LAN access points and bridges.

"It's increasingly clear that there is a segment of the market -- in hospitality, healthcare and retail -- that is asking for the best of both worlds: performance and looks," said Ram Appalaraju, senior vice president of marketing for Meru. "Also, we're seeing some universities asking for a less conspicuous design, with the fear of vandalism."

Aesthetics critical in hotel's voice over WLAN project

For the Westin Boston Waterfront Hotel, unsightly wireless LAN access points seemed even more of a problem since VoWLAN requires denser wireless LAN AP placement. There was also an issue with its old Cisco equipment.

The hotel began working with Vocera and T-Mobile to enable two different VoWLAN systems, but Larralde was struggling to make the technology work on existing Cisco Aeronet access points, which he originally deployed in 2006.

"Basically, we were having a lot of hiccups [with the Cisco WLAN] due to the different DTIMs [delivery traffic indication messages] we needed to set up for the different vendors [Vocera and T-Mobile]," he said. "When you were walking from one side of the building to another, you would lose the signal and connect to another. There were dropped calls and choppiness. We asked Vocera and T-Mobile for recommendations, and they both separately came up with Meru."

Had Larralde been using just one VoWLAN solution, Cisco might have worked for him, but Meru's Virtual Cell architecture allowed him to maintain two separate sets of configurations for both T-Mobile's and Vocera's voice over WLAN technology.

"We were looking to resolve this quickly to meet the needs of our guests and clients and for our internal communications," he said. "The only problem was [Meru] didn't have the i-Series out yet. So we went with their regular 300 series APs."

Meru's older 300 series wireless LAN access points are definitely bulkier and have external antennas, but for the most part this was OK with Larralde. Most of his legacy Cisco access points were above the ceiling. It was simply a matter of opening ceiling hatches and swapping APs. But the VoWLAN deployment required more wireless access point placement and coverage in new areas of the hotel where the access points couldn't be hidden.

The idea now is to swap the i-Series access points into these areas so that they blend into the look of the hotel and antennas are not sticking out.

As these more attractive wireless LAN access points become widely available, network engineers should consider whether wireless LAN access point aesthetics are a requirement before they start selecting a vendor, Mathias said.

"When we work on an RFP, we go out and interview all the interested constituencies out there," he said. "That's one of our standard questions: Do you care about aesthetics?"

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Shamus McGillicuddy, News Editor

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