Ruckus Wi-Fi Access Points for Your Small Business

The number of Wi-Fi capable devices has increased steeply over the last couple of years, fueled by the bring your own device (BYOD) phenomenon on one end and the ubiquity of laptops with built-in wireless capabilities on the other. As CIOs and IT managers rush to redesign corporate networks to support the influx of wireless devices that workers are bringing into the office-sometimes even two or three per person-Wi-Fi vendors are enjoying a burgeoning market.

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One such vendor, Ruckus Wireless, began operations in 2004. With 60 patents under its belt and more than 80 pending, the publicly listed company has a comprehensive portfolio of products for building wireless networks. For this review, I deployed two top Ruckus access points (APs) to determine if they are suited for deployment for a typical SMB.

The Ruckus Wireless Hardware: Two APs, One Controller

To simulate real-world deployment conditions, I set up a wireless network with two APs.

  • The ZoneFlex 7982 is Ruckus' current top-end indoor AP. It offers three-stream performance of 450Mbps per radio for a total throughput of 900Mbps over 2.4GHz and 5GHz simultaneously. The manufacturer's suggested retail price (MSRP) is $1,099.
  • The ZoneFlex 7962, another indoor dual-band AP, offers up to 300Mbps per radio or up to 600Mbps over both bands. MSRP is $999.

In this instance, both APs are centrally managed with a ZoneDirector 1100 controller. This network appliance from Ruckus offers capabilities such as smart wireless meshing and will intelligently load balance wireless clients across multiple Aps, the company says. For larger Wi-Fi deployments, the ZoneDirector can also integrate with an external Authentication, Accounting, Auditing (AAA) server. Alternatively, it's equally at home working off an internal database of user accounts.

The ZoneDirector 1100 has base price of $1,200. This includes the requisite licenses to manage up to six APs. The device will scale up to 50 APs, though in that case additional licenses would be needed.

To be clear, Ruckus Wireless APs can be deployed in standalone mode. Without the controller, though, you won't get the benefits of centralized management outlined above. In my opinion, a Ruckus Wi-Fi deployment without the ZoneDirector forsakes a level of manageability that you need when you deploy more than two APs.

Setting Up, Configuring the Wi-Fi Network

A previous post, How to Set Up a Business-Grade Wi-Fi Network, highlighted how Power over Ethernet (PoE) can simplify the deployment of a Wi-Fi network. For this reason I eschewed the bundled AC adapters and instead used an 8-port Gigabit Hewlett-Packard Networking (formerly ProCurve) switch to power the two access points over Ethernet. (The ZoneDirector appliance was also connected to the switch, though it draws its power from a separate AC adapter.)

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To set up the network, the administrator must log into ZoneDirector, as the entire process of provisioning and configuring the two APs is done entirely from its Web interface. Once logged in, I found that ZoneDirector does not come with any tools for getting APs optimally positioned. However, network administrators can upload an image of their floor plans and position their APs onto it for a rudimentary appraisal of wireless coverage.

A more precise site survey will require the use of dedicated planning tools such as ZonePlanner. This os sold separately by Ruckus for both Windows and Mac platforms, though the $495 price tag suggests that only organizations performing a large-scale or particularly complex deployment may be interested. (Ruckus does offer a number of free site survey and performance monitoring mobile apps for both iOS and Android, though I did not evaluate them.)

A ZoneDirector automatically detects nonprovisioned Ruckus APs that have been placed on the same network. As it is, initial configuration entails nothing more than adding a name and description for manageability, as well as allocating IP addresses to all network ports. Once done, APs can be assigned to a wireless local area network (WLAN) group or configured individually. Configuration options pertain to RF specific settings such as channels and maximum transmit power. When assigning APs to a group, administrators can selectively override options for each physical AP.

In addition, you must configure WLAN services. This cover options such as SSID, authentication, encryption and parameters such as rate limiting and virtual LAN (VLAN) ID. Multiple WLAN services can be created and added via the ZoneDirector, and more than one WLAN service can be assigned to each WLAN group or to an individual AP.

Note that all pertinent configuration changes are automatically pushed out to APs, with no need to log into each AP. Indeed, this centralized management capability extends to updating firmware, too. (In this case, my upgrade consisted of uploading a new image file to update the ZoneDirector. After restarting, the new firmware was automatically pushed to all provisioned APs so they could be upgraded.) Finally, configuration files can be downloaded from the ZoneDirector for safekeeping.

Ruckus Wi-Fi Network Security and Authentication

ZoneDirector offers a number of standard security features that you would expect from business-grade Wi-Fi hardware, such as the capability to filter by media access control (MAC) addresses and to create multiple SSIDs and VLANs to isolate network traffic. The configuration options for each SSID are highly granular and include throughput limits as well as options to isolate wireless clients and assign different security mechanisms for each SSID.

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While a static passphrase will work for a small office and home office (SOHO) setting, a larger deployment necessitates a more scalable authentication mechanism. On this front, ZoneDirector plugs into widely used standards such as Active Directory, LDAP, RADIUS or TACACS+.

Taken together, this means SMBs can deploy an "Office" SSID based on, say, Active Directory for laptops, a "Private" SSID with a lengthy static passphrase for the wireless security cameras and an unencrypted "Guest" SSID with severe security restrictions and low Internet speeds for partners and guests.

ZoneDirector also comes with the option to not automatically approve all join requests from APs that are connected to the wired network. If set, newly discovered APs must be manually added to ZoneDirector before they can be managed. ZoneDirector can also be configured to send email notifications for a range of events, including SSID and MAC-level spoofing attempts.

Finally, ZoneDirector automatically tags unidentified wireless APs as rogue access points. Such APs could be set up by employees, for example, and inadvertently give hackers a way to circumvent the corporate firewall. However, this feature may not be useful in environments where nearby businesses operate other wireless networks.

Ruckus Wireless Wi-Fi Throughput, Performance

At a three-meter range with line of sight, the ZoneFlex 7982 scored an average of 314Mbps for UDP downlink performance and 298Mbps in UDP uplink performance at a distance of three meters. At 10 meters and through two concrete walls, the speed drops to 88Mbps and 79Mbps, respectively. (These results are an average of three tests conducted with a 2012 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro using the built-in SpeedFlex performance measurement tool.)

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Though it is evident that the ZoneFlex 7982 is certainly capable of delivering superlative throughputs, the above results clearly demonstrates how structures and the environment can have an adverse effect on real-world performance. If anything, the simple performance test bolsters the argument that factors such as cost, ease of management and robustness should be given high weight as well.

Of course, it must be noted that laptops that incorporate the three-stream multiple input and multiple output (MIMO) antenna required to support 450Mbps Wi-Fi speeds are still fairly uncommon. An alternative would be a USB dongle armed with a three-stream MIMO antenna, though this detracts from the portability that laptops offer.

Ruckus APs, ZoneDirector Good Fit for SMBs

Our time with Ruckus Wireless hardware shows that it can be used to build a robust, high-performance Wi-Fi infrastructure. With capabilities expected of business-grade Wi-Fi hardware, we were impressed with its ease of management.

Indeed, Ruckus claims that ZoneDirector 1100 can be deployed and operated by nonwireless experts, and we agree. That said, rudimentary wireless knowledge is still necessary, and a certain level of competency with networking is also assumed. However, it is gratifying to see that Ruckus has made it possible for any network administrator or IT manager to be able to easily set up a Wi-Fi network.

ZoneDirector incorporates a number of advanced capabilities that I didn't get a chance to cover, such as the ability to mesh between APs, failover redundancy, a guest access mode and support for hotspot services. Ultimately, it delivers compelling value to SMBs and is worth a closer look.

Paul Mah is a freelance writer and blogger who lives in Singapore. Paul has worked a number of years in various capacities within the IT industry. Paul also enjoys tinkering with tech gadgets, smartphones and networking devices. You can reach Paul at paul@mah.sg and follow him on Twitter at @paulmah.

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Read more about wireless in CIO's Wireless Drilldown.

This story, "Ruckus Wi-Fi Access Points for Your Small Business" was originally published by CIO.

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