When my Linksys wireless router broke down earlier this year, I used the opportunity to look around for a wireless access point (AP) with better coverage as a replacement. Fed-up with a number of wireless blind spots around my flat, I spent time researching for the best Wi-Fi hardware, stumbling across the company known as Ruckus Wireless.

Much has already been written about the astounding performance of its patented antenna designs, the brainchild of company co-founders Bill Kish and Victor Shtrom. The most recent article about Ruckus appeared on Wired last month, while Tom’s Hardware also did a comprehensive roundup pitting Ruckus’ offerings against other enterprise-grade APs from Cisco and Aruba. And yes, Ruckus’ AP soundly thrashed the other products in every benchmark, topping the charts with a blistering 236Mbps average transfer rates when operating on the 5GHz band.

I wasn’t so much interested in the sheer performance of its hardware beamforming technology – though I did record speeds of up to 180Mbps – so much as to drill into how APs from Ruckus can be deployed in the enterprise. To that end, Ruckus Wireless sent me two APs: its top-end ZoneFlex 7962 AP, a mid-tier ZoneFlex 7300 AP, as well as a ZoneDirector 1000 WLAN controller to manage both APs. Both the 7962 and 7300 supports simultaneous dual-band performance and sports at least one Gigabit Ethernet port with PoE.

Benefits of enterprise deployment

Let’s first touch on some of the benefits of having an enterprise deployment of wireless APs before taking a more in-depth look at the above equipment from Ruckus. Home office and small business WLANs usually entail just one to two wireless APs strategically placed to achieve wireless coverage over the entire office, a strategy which works relatively well for small organizations.

The entire equation goes out of the window however, as users increase to 50 or more, or if users need to transfer the occasional large file via the wireless network. Businesses that attempt to plug additional APs into their networks suddenly discover how wireless scalability isn’t linear even as device management starts becoming a nightmare. And with every smartphone and tablet supporting Wi-Fi these days, saturation point is reached with far less users than originally envisioned.

Issues that an enterprise WLAN (Wireless LAN) should address include the ability to support multiple SSIDs – a guest network for partners that visit perhaps, seamless switching from one AP to the next, and support for authentication via well-understood and widely used mechanisms such as Active Directory or RADIUS — just to name a few.

AP configuration with Zone Director

The APs from Ruckus can work either in standalone mode or be managed via a ZoneDirector. When setting up the network for the first time, I used the ZoneDirector 1000’s Web interface to configure basic parameters such as its IP address and gateway, as well as changing its default password. Once I unboxed the 7962 and 7300 and they were powered on, I could configure and manage the APs from within ZoneDirector (see Figure A).

Figure A

It was also possible to define a number of global options across all APs, such as transmit power, or allocating the 5GHz (or 2.4GHz) band exclusively to 802.11N operation. In addition, the maximum number of clients supported by each AP can be restricted in order to guarantee performance.

Managing your WLAN

The ZoneDirector controller effectively allows administrators to manage the entire WLAN infrastructure as a single heterogeneous network (see Figure B). A plethora of services are available that range from self-healing capabilities that will adjust AP radio power and channels in the face of interference, to intrusion prevention features, such as temporarily barring wireless clients that generate too many authentication failures.

Figure B

My favorite feature is surely the ability to create multiple SSIDs, each of which has its own set of encryption, authentication, access control and bandwidth limiting settings. It is trivial, for example, to create a “Guest” SSID with rate limiting controls on top of the main “Office” network. IP routing or VLAN can be used to channel traffic from this Guest SSID directly to the Internet; or it can simply be enabled only when business partners are in the office. And yes, all configurations mentioned so far are automatically pushed out to the APs and take effect without having to reboot any hardware.

In addition, the ZoneDirector also offers capabilities such rogue device detection, allowing alerts to be generated when unauthorized wireless networks are detected. In fact, the relative locations of the rogue device can be plotted onto an uploaded floor plan (JPG will do) of your office, which should prove useful to prevent employees from poking gaping holes in your networkwith ad-hoc Wi-Fi hardware.

Mesh networking

Another capability worth mentioning would probably be Ruckus’ SmartMesh technology. Having struggled with Wi-Fi “range repeaters” that don’t work well, I found it a trivial matter to create a mesh network using the ZoneDirector. I was able to do it without referring to any manual, and had both APs set to “Smart” mode.

When I pulled out the Ethernet cable to one of the APs to simulate a network link failure, the disconnected AP automatically meshed with the remaining AP as if nothing untoward had happened. Walking from one AP to the next with my Wi-Fi connected iPad, I observed (by looking at the ZoneDirector dashboard) how the iPad switched APs without any interruption in my Internet download.

There are many other features of the ZoneDirector 1000 that I simply do not have the space to cover here, such as its full-featured AAA (Authentication, Authorization and Accounting) capabilities, user access controls and advanced security options. In my opinion though, a Ruckus solution consisting of a ZoneDirector controller paired with ZoneFlex APs is perfectly suited to build a manageable and full-featured WLAN.