May 15, 2009, 3:50 PM — Cloud-based Wi-Fi is now available for small and medium businesses, based on new gear from Meraki.
The company is best known for creating cheap, easily deployed, neighborhood Wi-Fi networks, using a mesh technology called RoofNet, originally developed at MIT. The new enterprise products are two indoor 802.11n access points, and cloud-based configuration, management and security services. In effect, Meraki makes the conventional WLAN controller a service accessible via any Web browser.
That means Meraki devices can be plugged in, turned on, provisioned and configured largely automatically. Enterprise network administrators can log in via a Web browser to Meraki's hosted service to modify settings, troubleshoot any problems, and perform a range of management tasks.
"I find it intriguing: you can get most of the capabilities of the traditional enterprise-class products at a fraction of the cost," says Paul DeBeasi, senior analyst for wireless and mobility at Burton Group, the Midvale, Utah technology research firm. "You can manage it yourself or someone in the Meraki channel can offer it as a managed service. I think Meraki will get some traction if it [really] works."
The new products will be demonstrated next week at Interop. Additional information is on the Meraki website.
The new access points are slim white boxes, just over 1.5 inches thick and slightly bigger than a folded sheet of paper:
MR11: 1-radio 802.11a/b/g/n access point, radio can be set to either 2.4 or 5 GHz bands, maximum data rate of 300Mbps using 2 radio streams (a "2x2" MIMO configuration), 802.3af PoE, integrated omni-directional antennas, 10/1000 Base-T Ethernet, support for the full panoply of enterprise security protocols and standards, including WPA2, TKIP and AES, 802.1x and VLAN tagging; 802.11e QoS. Price: about $600
MR14: identical in all respects except it has two radios, which can run at the same time on either band, for a total data rate of 600Mbps. Price: about $800.
The Meraki Enterprise Cloud Controller service is available for either $150 per access point for a 1-year license, or $300 per access point for the term of a 3-year license, including support.
For cost-conscious smaller enterprises lacking extensive IT expertise, the combination can offer dramatic savings. The lower costs are due to lower access point prices compared to Cisco, Aruba and other enterprise WLAN vendors, no stand-alone controllers, and no separate charges for maintenance and support. Meraki CEO and co-founder Sanjit Biswas says Meraki's total price tag can be 2-3 times less than Cisco and Aruba for a 30-access point deployment.
The price points are "astonishingly low," writes Craig Mathias, in his "Nearpoints" blog for Network World. "One might, of course, question putting a key element of one's WLAN on the other side of the Internet, but the [Meraki] Enterprise Cloud Controller is really more of the management plane than the control plane, and no user data flows through this service regardless."
Meraki isn't alone in aiming at this market segment. Ruckus Wireless is another vendor that's been pitching affordable, simple, enterprise-class WLAN products, exploiting the strengths of a patented multi-element antenna that increases signal reliability, range and throughput. D-Link and Netgear also prices products for this market, but they use a more conventional WLAN architecture.
Shifting the controller to a hosted data center where it becomes a Web-based service is a dramatic change for enterprise Wi-Fi, though there have been some hosted WLAN services available in the past. "The question I have is, how well does this really perform?" asks DeBeasi. "Traditional controllers gather intelligence from the access points, do things like load-balancing, band-steering of the clients [between different frequencies], automatically changing transmit power levels, and so on. There needs to be minimal latency in these kinds of functions."
One customer's take
So far, the model has worked well at Columbia Steel, a 30-acre structural steel fabrication plant in Rialto, Calif., east of Los Angeles. The company has installed one of Meraki's existing ruggedized MR58 outdoor, 3-radio, 11n access points high in the center of the cavernous main building, supplemented by two indoor wall-plug Meraki units at either end. Columbia's IT manager, Pat Garrett, has been testing three of the new dual-radio MR14's and the Cloud Controller service.
Columbia had struggled to find a reliable WLAN solution that could cope with two daunting problems. The tons of steel in the plant and adjacent yards caused large numbers of RF reflections, creating transient Wi-Fi signals, and RF interference created by massive welders and cutting torches. Told by systems integrators nothing could be done, Garrett cobbled together his own system, including a golf cart carrying a home-made mobile repeater, that usually let mobile workers, with a wireless tablet and printer, check inventory and handle shipping and receiving anywhere on the facility.
"It worked but it was kludgy," he says. "I'm not a wireless designer." Another issue was that each access point had to be separately managed: Garrett had no overall view of his network. He also had to create and manage two separate networks, one for employees and one for outside inspectors or other visitors. Finally there was the destruction problem: forklifts lifting and carrying huge girders regularly just clobbered the jury-mounted access points.
The combination of existing 11n Meraki gear has created a highly reliable signal, with throughput to spare, covering the interior of the main building and the side yards, according to Garrett. The company is now considering deploying a new Windows Mobile-based handheld device with bar code scanner.
Both the existing products and the MR14s worked out of the box: the access points are mounted, and plugged into a power source. Garrett logs into the secure Cloud Controller Website, enters the order number of the device, and the access point and cloud find each other. He can use the Web GUI to select or set configuration parameters, enterprise security and usage policies, and the cloud service applies them to all the Columbia Steel access points. Anytime he wants, from any PC with a browser, he can see a variety of management and log data about the WLAN.