Review: Voice over Wireless LAN

Aruba is the top dog if you want to add voice traffic to an enterprise wireless LAN

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As before, we measured roaming in configurations involving one, six and seven calls, with and without our background data. Cisco has bragging rights in the single-call case, with a roaming time of 0.433 seconds, and all systems roamed one call in about 0.5 seconds (see graphic). A half-second gap is noticeable to the human ear - as is any gap of around 70 millisec or more - but except for this dropout audio quality was generally high.

Local roaming with QoS

Aruba excelled in the roaming tests. Its average handoff times ranged from about a half-second for one call, to just more than 1 second for the seven-calls-with-data scenario. While that kind of delay will be noticeable to callers, it was still by far the fastest roaming performance of any product.

In Cisco's case, we could perform seven-call roaming tests, but not six-call tests because of time constraints. Average roaming times doubled from 0.433 seconds with one call, up to 1.053 seconds with seven calls - and then it leapt to 4.324 seconds with seven calls and background data.

Colubris could roam with six calls, but not seven. In the seven-call case, we could not prevent some phones from "pre-roaming" to the second access point before our test, which invalidated the results. We also had similar issues in testing with six calls, but the handsets stayed associated long enough for us to record the results, with and without background data. Even so, the results are counterintuitive - roaming took an average of more than 5 seconds without data, vs. about 2 seconds with data.

Chantry's BeaconMaster couldn't perform the roaming test with six or seven calls, even without background data present. Calls would drop rather than roam in those configurations. In troubleshooting the problem, we reduced the number of calls to see if it was a load problem. It was: In our power-off scenario, the highest number of calls that could roam through the BeaconMaster was only two. Two-call roaming times were similar to the one-call case, but we're not presenting those numbers because of the much-lower call count than the other vendors.

VeriWave's new test gear helped us contrast roaming at the 802.11 link layer and at the application layer, and the results were startling. In many cases, delays of even a few dozen milliseconds in link-layer 802.11 roaming led to delays of 10 seconds or longer at the application layer. Even vendors' engineers were surprised at the enormous disconnect between Layer 2 and Layer 7 measurements. The fact that even minor issues at the link layer had a major effect at the application layer underscores the need for well-behaved 802.11 implementations.

Remote roaming

Because WLAN switches can manage access points at remote locations, we wanted to know whether roaming times and call quality would be affected if the access points are in different locations than the switch. For example, would roaming times differ if the WLAN switch was in Boston and a user roamed between two access points in Los Angeles?

We re-ran the roaming tests, this time using an AX/4000 traffic generator/analyzer from Spirent Communications to inject a 100-millisec, round-trip delay. This is roughly the delay that traffic would experience going between Boston and Los Angeles.

We completed this test with only Aruba and Cisco. Chantry's BeaconMaster couldn't sustain six or seven concurrent calls. Colubris consists of an access point but no switch, ruling out remote roaming tests. For remote roaming, we tested with seven calls (time constraints prevented us from testing Cisco's gear with six calls).

Without data, local and remote roaming times were essentially identical for both vendors (see graphic). With data present, Aruba's roaming times rose from about 1 second in the local case, to about 3.5 seconds in the remote scenario. Cisco's remote roaming time was actually lower than the local test, which is counterintuitive. We cannot explain this result, but at least it validates Cisco's claim that access points can "pre-authenticate" clients, resulting in no performance penalty for remote access points.

Remote roaming with QoS

So what now?

It's possible that products supporting 802.11e QoS will do better at prioritizing traffic than our results indicated. All the vendors said it was early in the evolution of VoIP over wireless, and our test results show there is certainly room for improvement. For network managers looking to deploy VoIP on WLANs in the near future, there are three choices: make very few calls; don't ever send data; or look for equipment - such as Aruba's - that handles time-sensitive traffic in a timely way.


Network World gratefully thanks VeriWave for its support on this test. The company supplied its TestPoint instruments and developed the VoIP over WLAN Analysis Test Suite especially for this project. Further, company CTO Tom Alexander spent many weeks camped out in the Network Test lab while we ran these benchmarks. Thanks also to SpectraLink, which supplied WLAN handsets and its SVP Server call server, and to Spirent Communications, which supplied an AX/4000 analyzer with Genie impairment software for use in the remote roaming tests.
Aruba A2400, A800 switches, A61 access pointOVERALL RATING
Company: Aruba Networks. Cost: $8,780 as tested. Pros: Outstanding voice prioritization capabilities; rich set of QoS and radio frequency management features. Con: Some call drops in most stressful test case.
Company: Cisco. Cost: $51,978 as tested. Pros: Highly scalable, rich set of routing and switching functions. Cons: Doesn’t protect voice traffic under most stressful test case; doesn’t dynamically adjust to changes in radio frequency environment; pricey.
Company: Colubris Networks. Cost: $1,800 as tested; access point, $500. Pro: Powerful and intuitive user interface. Con: Limited prioritization of voice traffic.
Chantry BeaconMasterOVERALL RATING
Company: Chantry Networks (recently purchased by Siemens). Cost: $9,180 as tested. Pro: Supports Open Shortest Path First routing. Cons: Dropped calls in six- and seven-call cases; poor voice quality in the presence of data; no contingency for the loss of power.
The breakdown  ArubaCiscoColubrisChantry
QoS enforcement for VoIP traffic 25%5555
QoS enforcement for VoIP and data traffic 25%4.51.511
Roaming 20%4421
Features 20%54.532
Price 10%4253
TOTAL SCORE4.583.533.02.4
Scoring Key: 5: Exceptional; 4: Very good; 3: Average; 2: Below average; 1: Consistently subpar

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Newman is president of Network Test, an independent benchmarking and network design consultancy in Westlake Village, Calif. He can be reached via e-mail.

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Newman is also a member of the /alliance/, a cooperative of the premier reviewers in the network industry, each bringing to bear years of practical experience on every review.

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Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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