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New Wi-Fi gear aims to wipe out Ethernet edge switches

Meru announced on Wednesday high-performance Wi-Fi access points and software designed to let enterprise IT groups replace wired Ethernet switches at the network edge.

Dubbed Teton, the new 802.11n platform includes software to optimize usage by increasingly diverse Wi-Fi clients, including iPads and other tablets as well as smartphones. Teton introduces what Meru calls the "WLAN 500 mode," which is a network-wide service with features that let one access point deal with up to 500 Wi-Fi clients in a 500-square foot area.

ANALYSIS: "Major Wi-Fi changes ahead"

(Earlier this week, in separate announcement addressing big wireless networks, Motorola Solutions said it was jacking up its WiFi controller tenfold to handle up to 10,000 access points.)

As for Meru, its Teton-based AP400 indoor and outdoor models will have three 802.11n radios, with an option for a fourth via USB port, with each radio supporting three data streams. For three radios, the total throughput per access point is 450Mbps (compared to the prior two-radio, two-stream Meru models of 300Mbps). Adding the optional fourth radio, boosts this 1.8Gbps.

Meru is not yet announcing prices for the new hardware, due out later this year. The company's pitch is that the new product line will enable enterprises to phase out Ethernet edge switches, which are increasingly left idle as laptops and other clients connect via Wi-Fi. But even idle, there are support contracts, electricity, operational costs and traditional switch replacement cycles for which enterprises are paying. It seems likely there will be some premium for the powerful new radios and the software features, but Meru's pricing calculations may take into account the capital and operational costs of edge switches to spur adoption.

The idea of eliminating wired Ethernet as the primary network access has been controversial for the past two or three years. But even in 2009, a range of enterprises (many of them colleges and universities) were discovering that a majority of their wired Ethernet ports (90% at one university) were completely idle, because users were relying on Wi-Fi.

The new products make use of Meru's distinctive "WLAN virtualization" software, which among other things, lets you assign one channel to all access points, simplifying access and management. Additional channel assignments, for specific groups or types of clients or applications, can be in effect stacked across the access points, in what Meru calls channel layering.

Q&A: Meru Networks closing in on the all-wireless enterprise network 

But Meru is adding several capabilities that give the AP400 series the power, flexibility and intelligence to replace edge Ethernet switches (see the AP400 data sheet). The WLAN 500 "mode" or service already mentioned is one: a set of Meru algorithms let each radio coordinate with others, load balance, and steer radio signals to optimize throughput.

A second is called Distribution Mode, which Meru proposes to replace or at least reduce the racks of wiring closet switches. In Distribution Mode, AP400 becomes an aggregation point (or "root AP" in Meru lingo) for other access points in the network, via Meru's Wi-Fi meshing software. They pass their traffic wirelessly back to these aggregators, which can offer 900M to 1.8Gbps of backhaul capacity depending on the number of radios. The aggregator has a Gigabit Ethernet port to a higher-end, aggregation-level Ethernet switch.

A third new service is a patent-pending technology called Orthogonal Array Beam Forming (OABF). WLAN vendors over the past two years have been adding support for various optional parts of the 11n standard, (see from May 2010, "Major Wi-Fi changes ahead") including transmit beam forming (sometimes "beamforming"). The same waveform is sent over 11n's multiple antennas, with the magnitude and phase adjusted at each transmitter to focus the beam direction toward a particular receiver. This increases the signal's gain so it's more stable, and can be "steered around" interferers so it's more reliable.

[Ruckus Wireless in 2009 was the first to introduce beam forming for 11n products, exploiting its unique multi-component antenna design. Wireless blogger Craig Mathias used that introduction to explore the topic.]

Meru has created what it says is a more fine-grained alternative. Each Wi-Fi signal is made up of about 60 sub-carriers over a wide swath of spectrum, says Graham Melville, Meru's director of product management. Meru's code can optimize each of the sub-carriers and the result, he says, is an improvement in gain, or sensitivity, on the order of 8-10 dB.

The result of the improved gain is a higher signal quality and higher data rates: where Meru saw 36Mbps before applying its beamforming technology, it saw 54Mbps after, for example. "It stays at the high data rates because the signal is stronger, and better quality," Melville says.

The new access points also can use the optional Meru Proactive Spectrum Analysis as part of another service, called Air Traffic Services. One of the AP400 radios can be assigned the job of continually monitoring the Wi-Fi radio frequencies for unauthorized radios, analyzing the spectrum usage and interference, and running Meru's integrated wireless intrusion prevention system.

Another network service is called Mobile Application Segregation: administrators can create a dedicated channel for individual applications or groups of them, high definition video, or wireless VoIP.

John Cox covers wireless networking and mobile computing for "Network World."

Twitter: http://twitter.com/johnwcoxnww

Blog RSS feed: http://www.networkworld.com/community/blog/2989/feed

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