Meru's new WLAN controller is perfect for SMBs


Controllers for wireless LANs are now available in a dizzying array of implementations: the traditional appliance, distributed into access points (often called “controllerless”), running as software in virtual machines, and even completely resident in the cloud.

There are pros and cons to each of these strategies, but the traditional appliance-based controller remains a popular choice among those who want every WLAN element required resident in their shop.

The controller is also a logical spot for the required management functionality, simplifying the implementation of many – and particularly smaller – networks today.

But those IT shops looking for a smaller, everything-in-house solution have frequently had to go with controllers larger (and more expensive) than really required, often amounting to overkill even when considering future growth requirements.

Enter Meru Networks’ MC1550 controller - a compact, full-function unit that’s big on capability and yet small in size and price. Apart from an upper bound of 50 access points and 1,000 clients, there are few limitations here – we found a full range of useful functionality and even support for Meru’s latest AP832 high-end access points.

The MC1550 is tiny – 27x17.5x4.5 cm, perfect for a shelf, but rack ears are also included. It’s powered by an external brick, and has a fan that runs constantly, so rack mounting in a closet is advisable. It has dual gigabit-Ethernet ports and minimal front-panel LEDs, so there’s not much to see during operation anyway.

We set up a small test configuration (version 6.1-0-3) on our production office network with the MC1550 and a Meru AP832e (the model with external antennas) dual-802.11ac access point, the latter powered via an 802.3af power injector.

Initial configuration, which most importantly involves assigning an IP address to the unit, is performed via a serial connection – a bit of a pain given that most modern notebooks lack a DB9, and a baud rate of 115,200 is required.

Nonetheless, an appropriate and inexpensive USB serial-port adapter fixed us right up; Meru includes the required DB9 to RJ-45 adapter cable.

We completed the required setup (via the freeware CoolTerm on OS X) in minutes, to the point we could switch to HTTPs to do the rest of the configuration process and commerce operations. We’d love to see a default faked-up IP address, à la what’s typically done in residential products; this would eliminate the need for the serial port and some CLI futzing that only hard-core techies will truly look forward to. One can, by the way, get back to the CLI with one click on the Web-based console at any time, should those techies so desire.

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Once running in a browser, though, no complaints; the console is well-organized and easy to navigate. The first stop after we powered on the access point was the Controller Setup – Welcome page, a step-by-step wizard that performs basic configuration. Here any changes to the basic configuration information entered via the CLI can be made, followed by registration and applying licenses for access points and other features. Access pointss on the same subnet as the controller are discovered automatically, as ours was.

Setting up channels is similarly straightforward. It’s possible to automatically scan for channels in use (this takes two minutes), which we did, and the results were very interesting and informative. However, even though the recommendation for channel 40 was a good one, we couldn’t enter it from the allowed options, but, as it turns out, 40 is the upper extension and, consequently, Channel 36 was indeed an option – OK, not that clear, but easy to deal with.

We were, however, forced to assign one radio to a channel in the 2.4 band, even though both radios can operate at 5 GHz., but this was easily remedied on a subsequent Radio Configuration page.

meru 1550c radio configuration

The Wizard concludes with basic setup of SSID and security, so the MC1550 is operational (if not optimal) with very little work right out of the box. Plan on a half-hour, tops.

Subsequent configuration can get complex – there are literally hundreds of options, as should be expected in an enterprise-class product. But every option is easily accessible from a menu on the left side of the screen. Even with the excellent, context-sensitive online help, consulting the manual may regardless be necessary from time to time, but the documentation set is excellent. There’s a complete set of manuals, all in downloadable .pdf format, that cover every aspect of initial setup, operations, and everything else one might want to know about the product.

As you can see, there’s a lot here – truly big-controller functionality in a very small – and, we might add, affordable box, with list prices starting at $1,295, depending upon options. These include, by the way, the E(z)RF Network Manager, Service Assurance Manager, Spectrum Manager, Intrusion Prevention, and Identity Manager, which addresses both guest access and BYOD. Each of these is separately licensed, however.

meru 1550c wizard summary

There’s literally no difference in functionality between the MC1550 and Meru’s larger controllers, other than with respect to capacity. So, assuming a limited or satellite deployment, the MC1550 is a capable and robust performer that’s absolutely worth a look.

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