The best wireless LAN system for SMBs

Ruckus Wireless' ZoneFlex Smart WLAN System is powerful, easy, and yes, smart, making managed wireless networks a no-brainer for small deployments

Small businesses have, for some time, been able to easily deploy a wide-open access point or two, or put together a couple of access points with a basic level of security. The thing that hasn't been easily available is a small, secure, managed wireless network that's easy to deploy and administer, and priced for the needs of a smaller business. Now there is such a thing, and its existence does a good job of highlighting what we've been missing. The solution is the Ruckus Wireless ZoneFlex Smart WLAN System, and it is a very good thing, indeed, for the SMB wireless market.

Ruckus Wireless uses three components -- access point, controller, and optional wireless bridge -- to build its network. The management console isn't separate, but built into the controller; you reach the controller through a Web interface discovered via network plug and play. I found that I could set up a single secure network in less than five minutes, and establish more complex networks (say, one for guests who get the password from an authentication Web site or a receptionist) in a few minutes more. While the system wouldn't hold up to configuring scores of access points scattered across multiple subnets, that's not the market Ruckus is trying to serve. The product is aimed squarely at SMB wireless LANs, and it's the best I've seen for the small-business market.

Three components

The three basic components of a Ruckus Wireless network each fill distinct roles. The ZoneFlex 2942 AP (starting at US$349) is a "fat" AP, with enough intelligence to continue providing network access even if the link to the controller is lost. The ZoneFlex 2925 AP (starting at US$259) is an access point with a small five-port switch in the base so that wired components can be linked to the network across a wireless link. The ZoneDirector central management console (starting at US$1,200) brings easy configuration and management functions to the party, tying everything together into a coherent system.

An innocuous-looking off-white lump, the ZoneFlex 2942 AP is designed to blend into ceilings and walls without calling attention to itself. The AP can be powered by an AC adapter or through PoE, and the Ruckus engineer I spoke with said that many customers were using the PoE option to minimize the number of cables that had to be run through existing walls and ceilings.

One of the more impressive aspects of both the 2942 and 2925 access points is the use of MIMO (multiple-input/multiple-output) technology to maximize the usable range of the signal. You'll be hearing more about MIMO as 802.11n products begin to hit the market, but the main point to know now is that radio waves tend to bounce around inside rooms. The bounces mean that the same information will arrive at the receiver at slightly different times, owing to the different paths the signals have taken. To compensate, regular radios focus on one strong signal and filter out all others. A MIMO receiver can cope with multiple signals, allowing it to keep a working connection to a transmitter that might be a bit farther away. Using MIMO for an 802.11 b/g wireless access point is a forward-thinking move. Using it for an access point designed for the SMB market is impressive. In testing at my office, I found that a single Ruckus AP would easily provide solid coverage over a multiroom area that normally requires two APs to adequately cover.

If you need a network presence at a location beyond the reach of a Cat-6 cable, the ZoneFlex 2925 can serve as a wireless bridge and extend the network's reach by distances of 100 feet or more (depending on the terrain involved). The 2925 is visually distinct from the 2942 (it's a broad plastic "C" that's roughly the same size as the 2942) and is remarkable for the simplicity it brings to the network. Many companies won't need one, but if you do (say, if you want to provide network coverage in an outlying garage or barn), then deploying the 2925 can overcome a variety of hassles and headaches.

The heart of the system is the ZoneDirector, a central controller that coordinates and manages the Ruckus wireless network. Reached through a browser-based management console, the ZoneDirector with its associated software is what really separates Ruckus from other WLAN systems. Setting up a nicely secure wireless network (hidden SSID, WEP -- you know, the basic stuff) is incredibly simple. Even nicer, thanks to the straightforward configuration GUI, it's not much more difficult to set up a series of wireless networks to meet the needs of a variety of different users.

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