The odds of Borel Middle School in San Mateo, Calif., getting a top-notch wireless local area network (WLAN) were slim.
The school is part of an underfunded district with four technicians to handle hundreds of computers; it has no money for high-end equipment and certainly has no wireless experts hanging around.
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But Borel became one of the first customers of Ruckus Wireless Inc.'s SmartMesh WLAN technology, unveiled this week.
Ruckus' latest release -- the SmartMesh LAN system with the ZoneDirector 3000 and FlexMaster management tool -- is meant to push WLANs into the enterprise market with integrated smart antenna and meshing technologies. The goal is wireless networks with fewer wired connections that are less expensive to deploy and maintain, but have higher performance than most.
Until now, companies deploying WLANs typically installed wired Ethernet connections that enabled points of entrance used to reach devices throughout the enterprise. That setup could require dozens of expensive wired connections.
Ruckus' ZoneDirector 3000 enables large businesses to deploy 802.11n WLANs with as little as one connection. Through that connection, points of access are configured into a network, acting as interactive nodes, limiting the number of wired connections necessary. The ZoneDirector 3000 can control up to 250 of Ruckus' ZoneFlex access points.
Fewer cables enticed Michael Moy, Borel's volunteer IT consultant. The school, after all, had to make a LAN for the computer notebooks used in student labs and for teachers, but cabling was a big problem.
"We had a lot of old wiring, and we upgraded to have LANs, but the jacks to plug in computers aren't where the computers are," Moy said.
Going wireless wasn't an option at first because of the cost and the school's physical layout.
"We have several cement buildings stacked up on a hillside -- not exactly good for wireless," Moy said.
But Ruckus' system overcame that. To avoid disturbance or interference, SmartMesh uses beam steering technology to direct signals. The emergence of 802.11n technology has improved transmission in Wi-Fi partially because it enables the use of an array of antennas to purposefully move data streams from one place to another.
Some companies use those antennas to project signal in every direction simultaneously, in the hopes of providing stable service. Ruckus' smart antennas direct signals to the appropriate devices, endlessly tracking them to detect degradation. If there is a problem, the signal is immediately switched to improve performance. Ruckus' technology can direct signals to make both access and backhaul more efficient, requiring the use of fewer channels for transport as well.
Lots of companies are now working with 802.11n WLANs and meshing technology, but the meat of Ruckus' offering is the ability to integrate meshing technology with the company's "secret sauce" -- the radio beam forming technology, said Paul Debeasi, a Burton Group analyst.
Still, better technology only solves half the problem for enterprise Wi-Fi. Uptake has lagged in WLAN because wireless technology mystifies most IT staffers. Ruckus' vice president of marketing, David Callisch, said users and some value-added resellers (VARs) shy away from wireless because they don't think they have the expertise. Ruckus claims that SmartMesh and ZoneDirector products "take away the mystery."
"Once you plug in the access point, it's designed to optimize on its own," Callisch said. The network is "self-healing" -- since all of the points act as nodes, the network will continue to work if one goes down, he said. The system can also be managed remotely by users or VARs using the FlexMaster. "This undermines the complexity of what Cisco and Aruba have brought to market," he said.
It was exactly this simplicity that struck a chord with Moy.
"With meshing technology, the network self-repairs. If a kid trips over something and a connection gets unplugged, the access points know how to talk to each other so they can function using other points as the backbone," Moy said. Considering there are so few IT staffers around, it's also helpful that the system can be administered through a remote management system so technicians don't have to travel out to the problem.
Ruckus will support its partners in marketing to what Callisch calls the "unfortunate 50,000," which are those midsized and large companies that don't have large IT staffs, but need good systems, like hospitals, hotels and schools. In fact, the company recently signed Lodgian Inc., through its Atlanta-based partner solution provider One Media Wireless. The independent owner of hotels is said to be the first hotel operator to deploy next-generation Wi-Fi 802.11n technology, installing a WLAN in its Crowne Plaza Beach Oceanfront Resort Hotel in Melbourne, Fla.
In the WLAN game, Cisco Systems and Aruba Networks are still the players to beat, so Ruckus has gone after them through the pocket. Debeasi said the company changed the economics of deploying a WLAN by cutting the cost of cabling and requiring fewer radios and access points. A Ruckus system can run as little as half the cost of a comparable competitor's system. The cost of a typical 500-user WLAN using popular 802.11g is about $35,000, whereas the same size SmartMesh system runs at about $15,000.
SmartMesh is available now as a free software upgrade to customers with ZoneDirector WLAN controllers, and the ZoneDirector 3000 will begin shipping in July.