Let your Wi-Fi network do the hard work for you

Wi-Fi networks are pretty darned easy to set up these days - at least if you’re talking about a simple one or two access point network like the ones you might find in a home or very small office. The challenge comes with larger deployments - even with the advances in centralized Wi-Fi gateways and switches, dealing with issues such as site surveys, channel selection, access point power levels and airwave monitoring, to name just a few, gets quite complicated.

Wi-Fi networks are pretty darned easy to set up these days - at least if you’re talking about a simple one or two access point network like the ones you might find in a home or very small office. The challenge comes with larger deployments - even with the advances in centralized Wi-Fi gateways and switches, dealing with issues such as site surveys, channel selection, access point power levels and airwave monitoring, to name just a few, gets quite complicated.

Today this issue mainly raises its head in large-scale deployments, like when an enterprise or service provider deploys dozens of access points in a corporate campus;, or when a service provider does an installation in an airport, convention center or hotel. But as Wi-Fi becomes more ubiquitous, even small deployments will face interference and other “cooperation” issues from deployments in adjacent homes, offices or even public spaces (for hot spots). With access point prices trending ever downward, the density of Wi-Fi deployments can only go up.

With the right mix of equipment, engineering and ongoing monitoring, dense wireless LANs can work today. But - and this is a big “but” -  it’s not easy. The real issue is change - new users coming online, changes in usage patterns, even seemingly unrelated events such as moving file cabinets - can all throw into disarray a well engineered network by altering Wi-Fi propagation and access point traffic loads.

Most of the solutions to dense Wi-Fi deployments are relatively expensive - industrial strength enterprise Wi-Fi switches or routers that do a great job for large enterprises, but are simply overkill for smaller deployments (typically these switch/routers make business case sense for deployments of 30 access points or more). A start-up called Propagate Networks has recently launched an alternative:  inexpensive, embedded software solutions that make Wi-Fi networks self-organizing.

Propagate doesn’t sell anything that a service provider or enterprise would buy directly, but instead is focusing on partnering with Wi-Fi chip makers, client and access point manufacturers, and Wi-Fi gateway and switch vendors. Propagate sells these vendors nothing more than cheap, low processor-overhead software that can be embedded in any of these systems with very little impact on the vendor’s bill of materials (BOM).

This software, AutoCell, provides self-organization by ensuring that clients associate with the access point, which can provide them with the highest throughput - even if they are not the access points to which they are physically closest. So, for example, a new user who powers up her laptop may end up associating with an access point 75 feet away, instead of the one 25 feet away, if the network loading environment tells AutoCell that she’ll get better performance from the more distant AP. If an AP goes offline, AutoCell automatically “routes around it,”, transferring users to other APs and rebalancing the wireless network load. This is a continuous process, reacting to AP availability, the RF environment and client usage changes as they occur.

AutoCell automatically adjusts channel selection and power output levels in the access point based upon the RF environment - keeping channels separated when possible, and reducing power levels when required. This power level reduction even has a side effect of increasing security - instead of blasting out onto the sidewalk (or into neighboring offices) at full power, access points will only operate with as much power as is needed to maximize throughput for active users on the system.

Propagate recently announced some of its first round of partnerships, including chip vendor Atheros Communications, and AP and client CPE vendor NETGEAR. AutoCell is also being incorporated in Wi-Fi gateways and switches; Propagate also announced partnerships with BluesocketReefEdge and Chantry Networks - adding AutoCell's capabilities to these systems’ more granular control mechanisms for system administrators.

For service providers, the success of AutoCell could mean greatly reduced installation and operational expenses for Wi-Fi services, for both business and residential customers. At a basic level, AutoCell does all the heavy lifting on its own - all a customer would need is AutoCell-enabled equipment on both ends of the equation (AP and client CPE).  A service provider would still, of course, need to help customers with such Wi-Fi issues as integrating the wireless network with existing LANs and access services, and providing security and user authentication, but a lot of the really difficult RF domain issues could basically solve themselves.

Before this can happen, Propagate will need to get AutoCell incorporated in more gear, from more manufacturers, but given the momentum they’ve already gained, and the value proposition they offer, we wouldn’t be surprised to see that happen.

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