Aruba Networks buys China-based outdoor Wi-Fi mesh vendor

Extending wireless to industrial-scale outdoor deployments

Aruba Networks is buying a China-based wireless LAN company for its line of outdoor Wi-Fi mesh products. The deal will extend Aruba's Wi-Fi networking into a range of demanding, large-scale industrial uses.

Aruba will pay a total of $40 million, over three-quarters of it in a stock deal, for Azalea Networks, based in Beijing, with U.S. offices in Milpitas, Calif. Azalea offers a range of 802.11abg mesh access points, mostly outdoor products, targeted at sites like oil fields, refineries, mines, malls, sporting venues, and so-called "smart grids" of Wi-Fi-based sensors.

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One of the company's best known deployments: the 2008 Beijing Olympics, where 600 mesh nodes provided wireless data, voice and video over 19 square miles of the city. Azalea has shipped over 25,000 nodes to date, according to Aruba.

Azalea had 2009 revenues of about $5 million.

Most conventional Wi-Fi access points are wired directly or indirectly into a controller. By contrast, mesh access points can wirelessly communicate with each other, broadly similar to the mesh architecture of the Internet. A mesh arrangement creates a more resilient network because if one nodal connection fails, traffic reroutes automatically along other paths, to a gateway node that links the mesh with a LAN or other network. And by wirelessly hopping through mesh nodes, a WLAN can minimize Ethernet cabling.

Azalea created a set of wireless-specific, high-performance routing algorithms that eliminate the need for a gateway coordinator, and optimize wireless transmission, according to Michael Tennefoss, head of strategic marketing for Aruba. Instead, all the nodes have the potential for direct peer-to-peer connections.

Aerohive Networks is a wireless LAN vendor that offers a similar kind of connectivity for mainly indoor Wi-Fi networks. Nearly all WLAN vendors have at least one mesh product, though (apart from Aerohive and to some degree Ruckus Wireless) most mesh vendors target municipal WAN deployments: BelAir, Firetide, Motorola's MotoMesh and Tropos.

The Azalea multi-radio access points can change frequencies, channels and their backhaul route as needed for optimal performance. And another set of algorithms optimize performance by such techniques as buffering and aggregating data for efficient burst transmissions, and recovering and repairing corrupted data payloads on the receiving side so that costly retransmissions are not required.

Aruba has an existing line of outdoor 11abg mesh access points, but these are aimed at relatively small-scale deployments, such as a single sports arena, Tennefoss says. The Azalea line will cover square miles, but at the same time bring the kind of throughput that's been missing from large-scale municipal Wi-Fi deployments. Azalea promises backhaul performance of about 18Mbps, compared to muni networks that usually are well below 10Mbps.

Without going into specifics, Tennefoss says Aruba plans to bring the best of both product lines together, and integrate them with Aruba's AirWave network management application. Asked about plans for introducing 802.11n in both the Aruba and Azalea mesh products, he would only say, "I think it's fair to say that products of both companies will migrate to where the technology is heading."

The deal is expected to be closed in late summer or early fall, during Aruba's fiscal first quarter.

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