by Craig Mathias
Historically, there have been two broad categories of Wi-Fi equipment: simple, small-scale routers designed for residential applications, and enterprise-class systems that can literally do it all but require the skill and expertise of IT professionals to use effectively.
In recent years, though, a number of products have appeared that offer big-system capabilities but with small-system entry points in terms of scale and pricing, and include sophisticated and yet easy-to-use management consoles implemented in the cloud. Start small with - one hopes - no compromise in functionality, and grow to continually meet the needs of the organization, as required, conveniently and cost-effectively. Who wouldn't like that?
Our research at Farpoint Group shows that a lot of people would, but the availability of products in this space is really just developing now. One product line that we've had our eye on for some time, the Aruba Instant from industry leader Aruba Networks, attempts to reduce the complexity in setting up a high-function, business-class WLAN to, well, just about zero. And as initial configurations - which might be just a few APs - have a tendency to grow over time, scalability is in fact a critical selling point in the approach Aruba takes.
How easy is the Aruba Instant to use? Well, take the AP (in our case, an 802.11n, 300-Mbps AP-105) out of the box, connect it to Ethernet, plug in the power supply (unnecessary if you're using power over Ethernet), and connect to the AP from a Wi-Fi client via the unsecured SSID "instant". Simply login with the default credentials provided, and you'll see the system's dashboard, which you can access in a browser.
You can update to the latest firmware (we needed to), and then it's time to create a wireless network. It's so easy that anyone who's familiar with a home Wi-Fi router can do it without reading a single line of documentation. Enter SSID, primary network usage (employee, voice, or guest, and remember, you can create multiple networks if you wish), indicate client IP addressing (DHCP works fine), VLAN preference (if you use these), your security preferences (we used WPA2-Personal, but there are many options here including WPA-2 Enterprise), and any network access restrictions appropriate to your policy for this SSID. That's it. In most cases, you're done. You can now use the dashboard to monitor number of clients, input and output throughput, and much more.
All of this is summarized in a Quick Start Guide that comes in the box with the AP, but again, this is simple stuff. Aruba says the set-up process will take less than five minutes. They're absolutely correct, and we were suitably impressed.
Aruba Instant Specifications:
Wireless Radio Specifications:
Let's take a gander at that 'much, much more.' Want to steer users to the 5 GHz band? No problem.
You can tweak airtime fairness parameters, with both of these part of Aruba's elegant ARM (Adaptive Radio Management) facility. There's a sophisticated firewall, intrusion protection, support for virtual private networks (VPNs), and still more.
Note that Aruba Instant is as easy to set up and configure as a home wireless LAN (maybe even easier than some we've used), but offers facilities appropriate to business users. Adding a new AP is also practically automatic, so growth and scalability are unlikely to be issues.
We particularly like the dashboard feature. Since this runs in a browser, it's possible to monitor and manage a wireless LAN from almost anywhere. This trend towards cloud-based, controller-less WLAN systems, particularly for smaller installations, is now well-established, and Aruba is clearly a major competitor in this space. There is a detailed manual available, but the entire product is so intuitive that we didn't even look at it until we were well into operations.
So, we got our wish: big-system features with small-system convenience and ease-of-use. Check out the Aruba Instant if you're in the market for a true business-class wireless LAN for the smaller business. Compromise? None here.
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