Aruba Networks latest to unveil 802.11ac access points

Joins other WLAN vendors ushering in the "gigabit Wi-Fi" enterprise

Aruba Networks became the latest company to announce Wi-Fi access points that can support over 1Gbps throughput, at the cellular industry’s CTIA show in Las Vegas this week.

Aruba

The Aruba products promise, under the right conditions, Wi-Fi data rates of up 1.7Gbps (and if the client has corresponding Wi-Fi feature from silicon-maker Broadcom, up to 1.9Gbps). And a new feature called ClientMatch lets the Wi-Fi access point, finally, push a Wi-Fi client to an access point with a better signal.

11ac will be faster, but how much faster really?

Resources for 802.11ac 'Gigabit' Wi-Fi

The pace of 11ac introductions, and innovations, is accelerating. In March, Ubiquiti Networks released enterprise-class, 11ac access points aimed at small to mid-sized organizations. The new Unifi AP-AC is a dual-radio device, with an 11ac data rate of 1.3Gbps in the 5-GHz band, and an 11n data rate of 450Mbps in 2.4GHz. One of its most astonishing features is its price: $299.

Chief Marketing Officer David Hsieh makes the pitch that enterprises moving to or expanding 11n networks will conclude it’s cheaper to go with 11ac now, rather than spend capital on improving 11n and then in two or three years making another capital outlay to upgrade that network to 11ac. “It’s the first Wi-Fi technology that could replace wired infrastructure everywhere except in the data center,” he says. “All wireless clients, even the even most demanding such as high-bandwidth video and low-latency VoIP, could rely on 11ac Wi-Fi.”

The new Unifi access points come with a major upgrade to the vendor’s controller software, which runs on a PC or in the cloud as hosted service. One new feature is what Ubiquiti calls Zero Handoff Roaming (ZHR), which behind the scenes makes it easier and faster for Wi-Fi clients to shift from one access point to another. The APs “talk among themselves” about when and how to handoff clients. The client doesn’t have to re-authenticate and negotiate a new connection, which can often take seconds and create problems for real-time applications like video and VoIP. All these administrative tasks are handled behind the scenes.

In addition, the ZHR code lets the access point view connectivity from the client’s perspective: it can calculate the client’s sending strength, which may be much weaker than the AP’s sending strength. In such situations, a client can receive from the AP but can’t send to it, says Hsieh. With Zero Handoff Roaming, the AP can shuffle the client to a stronger connection via a neighboring AP.

The second new feature is multi-site management: one controller can now manage multiple Ubiquiti WLANs at different sites, giving administrators both an overall view of network health, as well as the ability to drill down into site-specific details.

Earlier this month, at the Interop show, Motorola Solutions unveiled three 11ac access points, indoor and outdoor.

+ AP 8232 is an indoor unit with internal antenna, two radios, 3x3 MIMO, and designed for plug-in companion applications such as remote controlled video camera or cellular modem for a WAN backhaul or security sensors.

+ AP 8222 is also an indoor, but with a sleeker design; it has two radios, 3x3 MIMO, with internal antenna.

+ AP 8263 is ruggedized outdoor model with three radios, with the third radio supporting wireless intrusion prevention systems and location sensing.

All three will run on existing 802.3af Power-over-ethernet systems, according to Motorola.

The companion controller/access point software upgrade, WiNG 5.5, adds real-time content caching to improve web browsing performance, and unified management portal to encompass branch office deployments, which can now be centrally managed. Finally, Motorola’s MESHConnex software now supports 11ac, allowing a backhaul connection that can handle mulit-media traffic.

The WiNG 5.5 upgrade is available in June; the 11ac access points ship in July. Motorola didn’t formally announce pricing but says they will not charge a premium for 11ac. “If you can pay for 11n, why not install 11ac?” asks Chris Hinsz, Motorola’s product manager for the new access points. “If you have a few early 11ac devices, they’re on and off the WLAN faster, so you actually improve throughput for 11n clients as well.”

[D-Link a week ago unveiled a new family of 802.11ac routers aimed at home networks. There are six products in all, in two lines, performance and value. They all have two radios, for 11n on 2.4Gbps, and 11ac on 5Ghz, but data rates of both radios vary from lower to higher. That variance is reflected in the price ranges, which starts at $80 and ends at $170.]

With this week’s announcement, Aruba steps into the 11ac space. But besides the new Aruba 220 Series 11ac hardware, the company also announced a patented technology it calls ClientMatch. In essence, the Aruba algorithms and code let the access points “conspire” to shift an 11ac client, such as a laptop or tablet, to the “best” access point – the one closest and least loaded. That’s important because to get the highest 11ac throughput, clients have to be quite close to the access point, about 20 to 25 feet, according to Aruba.

It’s another way in which software innovation is making ever-more complex Wi-Fi networks more transparent to end users and better performing.

The new Aruba 220 access point has two radios, based on Broadcom’s chipsets, for 2.4 GHz and the 11ac-mandated 5 GHz bands. Each radio has three transmit and three receive antennas, and supports three spatial streams (sometimes designated as 3x3x3 or 3x3:3). The 2.4GHz 11n radio has a maximum data rate of 450Mbps or, if the client has matching Wi-Fi chipset from Broadcom, up to 600Mbps. For 11ac connects, that configuration can yield a data rate up to 1.75Gbps, according to Aruba (or up to 1.9Gbps for client devices with Broadcom's TurboQAM technology).

But there is another 11ac caveat. According to Aruba, the access point radios can run on standard 802.3af Power-over-Ethernet, supplying about 13 watts. But in that case, the 5-GHz radio can only support 802.11n data rates and throughput. To boost performance to 11ac, the enterprise will have to upgrade to 802.3at PoE. That standard supports up to 25 watts, but Aruba says its 5GHz 11ac radio only needs 15 watts.

The 220 has two Gigabit Ethernet ports, with link aggregation to enable both to be sending and receiving at the same time.  

The first of the 220 products, designed to work with Aruba controllers, will be available in June, with a starting list price of $1,295. That compares to $1,095 list price for Aruba’s existing three-stream 11n access point. In the third quarter, Aruba will release a controller-less model, part of its Aruba Instant product line.

ClientMatch is designed to compensate for Wi-Fi clients that, for various reasons, persist in clinging, or “sticking,” to one access point when one that is nearer, and less loaded or suffering less interference is available. It can do this for any Wi-Fi client, not just 11ac.

“11ac wifi requires really good signal quality,” says Ozer Dondurmacioglu, director, product and solutions marketing for Aruba Networks. “To get gigabit Wi-Fi, you need to be no more than 20 to 25 feet [from the access point] to take advantage of that. If you’re not close enough, you don’t get 11ac rates: you get 11n rates.”

ClientMatch is designed to ensure that all Wi-Fi clients are connected to the closest and least busy access point. It ends up making the access point behave a lot like a cellular base station. In cellular networks, unlike Wi-Fi, it’s the network, not the client device, that controls the roaming decision.

The ClientMatch code on the access point gathers real time information about every packet, statistics such as retry rates and rates to form a picture of signal quality for each client, and information about the coverage and signal quality for its neighboring access points. As clients increase, ClientMatch can calculate the utilization rates for the access points, and detect interference.

If the original or host access point detects that a neighboring access point is a better match for a given client, it sends a de-authorization and then a de-association message to the client. The client then sends out probes searching for another access point. But only the AP that’s been identified as the best match for that client responds to it.

Aruba tested a beta version of ClientMatch during its annual sales meeting, in a auditorium packed with sales reps on their laptops and devices. Without ClientMatch, Aruba’s WLAN management software found a lot of Wi-Fi clients with a low signal to noise ratio (SNR), which is bad, because it means the signal is less powerful compared to the background electronic “noise.” When ClientMatch was switched on, “SNR improved significantly and more of the devices moved to higher SNR values,” Dondurmacioglu says.

“Even if the client devices are sticky, the health of the overall WLAN improves in terms of signal quality [with ClientMatch active],” he says.

ClientMatch will be available in June as part of the planned ArubaOS 6.3 release, for the vendor’s access points and controllers. ClientMatch is a free upgrade to existing Aruba customers with support contracts.

Also included in the 6.3 release will be Microsoft Lync Visibility. This is new code that can call Microsoft’s recently announced Lync Diagnostics API. Through the API, Aruba’s WLAN management software can monitor an array of video, VoIP and unified communications applications: QoS markings, jitter, delay, packet loss, MOS scores, caller/callee identity mapping and more. This information can be combined with network status data on the WLAN side for tasks such as end-to-end call visibility, accurately prioritizing traffic, and more quickly identifying faults and their roots causes.

John Cox covers wireless networking and mobile computing for Network World.http://twitter.com/johnwcoxnwwjohn_cox@nww.com

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