Review: PowerCloud delivers Wi-Fi access point and cloud-based management for small business

PowerCloud Systems has released a cloud-based Wi-Fi solution that fills the gaps between residential products that lack management and features, and enterprise systems that can be overkill in smaller organizations.

PowerCloud Systems has released a cloud-based Wi-Fi solution that fills the gaps between residential products that lack management and features, and enterprise systems that can be overkill in smaller organizations.

PowerCloud Systems originally offered OEM cloud management to manufacturers of residential-class wireless routers. This strategy didn’t work as well as it might – our testing of one of these a couple of years ago revealed a lack of good marketing and inadequate support on the part of vendors at the time, indicating that these OEMs really didn’t understand the value of what they were selling.

PowerCloud then turned its attention to a more profitable direction, with both a more sophisticated set of features in the management console and a very capable 802.11n access point with a couple of very interesting features.

PowerCloud’s Enable CAP324 AP is aimed at the smaller enterprise that, to this point, has had to make do with either residential-class products that lack both management and a business-oriented feature set, or enterprise-class wireless LANs that presented either too steep a learning curve or too high a bill.

The CAP324 is a very compact, dual-band unit with internal antennas; a 324X model has external antennas, and even an optional outdoor enclosure. Both radios are 2x2 802.11n (300Mbps), and can operate concurrently. Setup is easy: plug in the access point, log into the CloudCommand service, do a one-time registration if required, add the access point via a UIC number on the unit, do basic Wi-Fi setup (security, etc.), and you’re on the air in less than a minute. Adding additional access points is similarly a breeze.

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A key feature of the CAP324 line is the PowerCloud CloudCommand Enterprise Virtual Management Center (VMC). Once an access point is added, the console provides an easy vehicle for making changes and adding additional capabilities, like setting up a hotspot service. Traffic reports are simple, and rogue access point detection is also included.

[Super-fast Wi-Fi: Cisco, Ubiquiti access points top out at nearly 400Mbps]

The console is easy to navigate and balloon help provides assistance valuable to newbies and experienced users alike – in other words, getting started is easy, and growing and adding sophisticated features like multiple SSIDs and VLANs similarly so.

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I am a huge fan of cloud-based management - wired, wireless, device, application, whatever. I can’t really see any downside here – the old standby about lost connectivity resulting in a loss of management is a bit of a red herring, because, given that loss of connectivity, a loss of management visibility likely isn’t the biggest concern during that outage; the fact that little else is happening is.

And designing solutions that minimize single points of failure, like redundant links to the Internet, isn’t all that hard today. Besides – cloud-based management makes scaling up easy: even if one has only five or 10 access points, the lack of a single management console for all of these can get very old, and very fast. Having to touch even a few access points for firmware upgrades or even minor reconfiguration introduces the opportunity for error, costing even more time down the road in lost productivity for both users and operations staffs. So, while cloud-based management may not set the residential world on fire, it’s in fact essential in the enterprise – even the very small enterprise.

An intriguing option for the CAP324 is the SB13 DomeShield kit, which looks like a metal salad bowl with the CAP324 mounted in it. This unit is in fact hemispherical, not parabolic, meaning it’s designed for isolation, not amplification. The DomeShield is thus a simple way to concentrate (vertically) and isolate the signal from a given access point.

While I did not test this option, this approach could be a very effective technique for maximizing performance in densely deployed environments. And, yes, dense deployments can be very valuable irrespective of the size of the organization.

On the downside, it’s fair to ask if a 300Mbps 802.11n product still makes sense in an era of 1.3Gbps 802.11ac. While I’m advising clients of Farpoint Group to begin to gain experience with 802.11ac sooner rather than later, it is important to point out that the vast majority of client devices out there today are 802.11n, with many if not most of those operating only in the 2.4-GHz band.

Even as we forecast demand for 802.11ac products to surpass that of 802.11n by the end of 2015, the vast majority of clients will still be based on 802.11n for quite some time – we don’t see the wholesale replacement of 802.11n even beginning before 2018. As a consequence, the continuing installation of 802.11n does in fact make a lot of sense in many venues, especially considering the lower demand for Wi-Fi often accompanying smaller organizations, and, of course, the (often much) lower prices for 802.11n access points.

And, of course, 802.11n prices will be much lower than those for 802.11ac: the list price for the CAP324 is only $349, including one year of CloudCommand service. Bottom line: the Enable CAP324 from PowerCloud Systems is definitely worth a look.

Mathias is a principal at Farpoint Group, a wireless advisory firm in Ashland, Mass. He can be reached at craig@farpointgroup.com.

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