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WLAN vendor Meru introduces context-aware networking

Meru expands network segregation capabilities onto its new MobileFlex architecture for context-aware networking, prioritizing apps across the wireless LAN.

As a growing number of devices, applications and guest users connect to enterprise wireless LANs, network administrators need flexible options for delivering secure network access

Wireless LAN vendor Meru Networks is offering its new MobileFlex architecture to give its customers a new context-aware networking policy engine. Meru is also adding support for Apple's Bonjour protocol, new 802.11ac access points and cloud readiness.

Context-aware networking: Prioritizing traffic, easing management

Meru's wireless LAN architecture has always been a little different from its peers. Rather than segmenting the network with each access point running a different channel, Meru assigns a class of users to a specific channel that runs across all access points, with policies and access that follow them across the network, said Rohit Mehra, vice president of network infrastructure research at Framingham, Mass.-based IDC.

Meru's new MobileFlex architecture includes a new Flex Access context-aware networking policy engine that builds off of Meru's original architecture by offering context-aware application layers (CALs)., said Manish Rai, vice president of product marketing for Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Meru.

Flex Access will still provide the same performance management flexibility though multi-channel deployment modes, but the new CALs will allow for context-based segregation of both enterprise-grade and consumer-grade application traffic to different access points or channels, Rai said. The CALs can also be overlaid onto existing wireless LAN networks from third-party vendors.

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Bringing application control and context-awareness to the branch office 

"As people bring their own devices into work or into an organization, IT is challenged with how to define and then enforce access policies -- like restricting a physician's access to viewing patient health records on their personal tablets while only on the hospital's network," he said.  

The vendor's new 802.11ac-ready Systems Director 6.0 controller -- scheduled for beta release in Q2 -- will allow for centralized or distributed VMware cloud-ready virtualized controller options, as well as IPv6 support for enhanced scalability to ease bring-your-own-device onboarding for IT.

MobileFlex also includes Service Connect, an offering available in the second quarter of this year that will allow IT to provision guest access and apply access policies for consumer services, including Apple's AirPrint and AirPlay via Apple's Bonjour protocol.

Farmington Municipal Schools, a Farmington, N.M.-based K-12 school district, is a predominantly Apple shop, and its IT organization  needed a context-aware networking solution that would support its one-to-one laptop program that put PCs into the hands of 5,000 students, said Charles Thacker, the district's director of technology.

Thacker's team, which supports more than 10,000 devices across the district's 18 schools, replaced its legacy 802.11b/g-based Cisco wireless LAN with an 802.11n Meru network a few years ago. 

"We knew our legacy [wireless LAN] infrastructure was going to be unsustainable and wouldn't be able to handle the change from maybe 100 laptops, up to 700 laptops, as well as new clients that supported 802.11n," Thacker said.

Now the school district plans to take advantage of the Bonjour protocol support offering in MobileFlex, he said. "Bonjour is really chatty on the network; the ability to streamline and focus what devices are able to communicate with certain users is very important to us."

Thacker and his team are also working on using the context-aware networking capabilities of the new architecture by applying different policies to create networks for teachers, students, guests and presenters, Thacker said.

Evolving wireless LAN architectures offer greater security, reliability  

Context-aware networking makes policy management simpler for IT, but it's not just about separating by user types, Mehra said.

"It's not just who is accessing what on the network, but [Meru's technology] is about allocating traffic and high-bandwidth applications into different virtual layers to create a separation. IT can parse out and prioritize critical applications, or anything else over what users might be doing," he said.

While other networking vendors have this capability as well, Meru's policy allocation approach is different, Mehra said. "After [IT] allocates the policies, they can be put into different virtual layers on the same channel on the Wi-Fi network."

Many industries -- like health care -- would historically have never relied on a Wi-Fi network for primary network connectivity due to security and performance concerns, but advanced capabilities like segregation through context-aware networking are allowing more industries to rethink their business strategies. 

"These kinds of network infrastructure options are allowing businesses to implement a more holistic Wi-Fi solution that is ubiquitous and reliable," Mehra said.

Meru also announced new hardware to help customers get started with Meru investments with an eye toward future upgrades. The MC1550 is an 802.11ac-ready entry-level controller that supports up to 50 APs and 1,000 client devices.

The vendor is also emulating vendors like Xirrus, unveiling its own investment protection plan for 802.11ac. Customers who buy its existing AP332 802.11n access points will get discounts on future 802.11ac access points. Finally, Meru announced a single radio 802.11n AP1014 access point with four built-in Ethernet ports for wired pass-through.

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Gina Narcisi, news writer and follow @GeeNarcisi on Twitter.  

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