Ruckus Wi-Fi gear goes upmarket

As Cisco Systems enters the beam-forming Wi-Fi market, a pioneer of that technology, Ruckus Wireless, is taking aim at Cisco territory: large enterprises.

Ruckus developed its patented antenna-control software with home entertainment and hospitality in mind, but later added products for small and medium-sized companies. Ruckus says its beam-forming system delivers faster and more stable wireless connections while requiring less setup and maintenance.

Cisco recently launched its own access points with beam-forming. The technology takes advantage of multiple antennas to aim radio waves from an access point in the direction of the client that's communicating. Ruckus says its beam-forming system rejects interference better and can direct a beam on a packet-by-packet basis, plus use ongoing feedback from the client to fine-tune the connection.

On Monday, Ruckus will introduce a high-capacity access point and a controller designed for larger enterprises and for specialized customers such as hospitals, hotels and schools. The ZoneFlex 7962 access point is the first from Ruckus to use dual-band IEEE 802.11n technology, which can utilize both the 2.4GHz and 5.8GHz spectrum bands simultaneously. The 19 antennas housed within the access point can arrange themselves in 4,000 different combinations to create effective beams, the company said. The access point can run on standard 802.3af Power over Ethernet.

The new ZoneDirector 3500 controller can manage 32 separate wireless LANs with as many as 500 access points, up from 250 for the biggest existing box from Ruckus.

Enterprises want Wi-Fi to be more like a utility than a mere supplement to wired networks for convenience, but current products can't meet that need because of cost and fluctuating performance, according to David Callisch, vice president of marketing at Ruckus. Because of its beam-forming technology, Ruckus equipment can deliver steadier speed than competing products and do so with fewer access points and controllers, he said.

The University of Lausanne, in Switzerland, turned to Ruckus after it decided to upgrade its wireless LAN to 802.11n. Students had been using a Wi-Fi network on campus for several years, but the university wanted to move faculty and staff onto wireless as well, said Network Project Leader Ha Nguyen. Faculty members frequently moved, so the IT department faced repeated rewiring projects and wasted resources as rooms changed from offices into labs and back again, he said.

Nguyen's team narrowed down its 802.11n product options to those that could deliver strong, stable performance both upstream and downstream.

"To make people move from wired to wireless, we'd better (allow) them to get good performance," Nguyen said. "As a university, we cannot impose anything. We need to convince them."

The Ruckus gear has long-enough reach that if an access point on one floor stops working, users can still get a usable signal from the floor below, Nguyen said. In addition, the beta version of Ruckus' new software for large enterprises was more stable than some shipping software, he said.

But one of the biggest benefits of Ruckus was its approach to controllers, according to Nguyen. The university had worried that on an 802.11n network, with theoretical data rates over 100Mb per second, wireless LAN controllers switching traffic from the access points would become bottlenecks. But the ZoneDirector 3500 doesn't switch packets itself. It manages the WLAN and leaves packet switching to standard, low-cost gear from any vendor. This cut the overall cost of the network by at least half, Nguyen said.

To support between 500 and 1,000 access points, Nguyen expects to use three ZoneDirector 3500s even though the new controllers are designed to support as many as 500 access points each. "We are more conservative," Nguyen said.

Demand for Wi-Fi within enterprises is growing, but vendors are only beginning to offer equipment that really meets the need for reliable access there, said Burton Group analyst Paul DeBeasi. Many IT managers still think of Wi-Fi as unreliable, based on their experiences with gear that is four or five years old, he said.

"Wireless has evolved from a nice-to-have to an expectation from users," DeBeasi said. "The new workers coming into the enterprise are expecting complete mobility."

Innovations such as beam-forming and dual-band capability can help to make Wi-Fi a useful adjunct to wired Ethernet, or even a replacement for it in new offices, DeBeasi said. Dual-band 802.11n systems, recently introduced by Cisco, Apple and other vendors, help to bring older clients onto the network through dedicated radios in the 2.4GHz band used by the earlier 802.11b/g standards.

DeBeasi doesn't expect Ruckus to go up against Cisco directly in large multinational enterprises.

"For those gigantic companies, wireless is just a small piece of the overall bundle," DeBeasi said. "It just gets pulled through."

But Ruckus' latest products could help the company better compete against the array of vendors, such as Aruba Networks and Hewlett-Packard's ProCurve business, that buyers turn to for alternatives to Cisco, he said.

The ZoneFlex 7962 is available now for US$999. The ZoneDirector 3500 is set to ship in the second half of this year, with price to be determined. The Ruckus Smart/OS 8 operating system is free with support contracts, and the FlexMaster remote management software is available now starting at $5,000.

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