Since the advent of controller-based WLAN systems, I've bemoaned the hefty price-tag and complexity that comes with another layer of network hardware. It was a big jump going from access points that could think for themselves to models that needed to get their smarts from a mothership residing elsewhere on the network. But a middle-ground market is emerging around a number of vendors including BlueSocket, Meraki and AeroHive. We tested BlueSocket's vWLAN 2.0 to see if it can provide a feature-rich 802.11n environment with less-expensive controllers.
BlueSocket provides a variety of form factors for its vWLAN controller, including software loaded onto an IBM blade server, an appliance, a virtual image that companies can run on their own hardware, or a controller hosted off premises. One controller can support 1,500 BlueSocket 802.11n access points. Even better, this single management instance administers access points across any number of sites regardless of how, or if, they are connected to the central network.
As a BlueSocket customer, I have experience with the company's line of BlueSecure controllers, which I use for guest-access services on my large Cisco network. As I kicked the tires on vWLAN 2.0, I was pleased to see the same familiar user interface, but with an expanded functionality that gives controller systems from Cisco, Meru and Aruba a run for their money. To emulate two different branch office scenarios, I tested BlueSocket 1800 and 1840 access points in my office and at home. All access points connected across the Internet to a central vWLAN software-based controller, which BlueSocket hosted in its data center so I could further test the distributed performance of vWLAN 2.0. This model scales well; each virtual controller instance can support up to 1,500 access points on the same network or in any number of distributed locations.
From the administrator and client perspectives, the vWLAN environment just works. Upon plug-in, the 11n access points learn the local network and what VLANs are available. They also check in across the Internet to the vWLAN 2.0-based management system. The APs authenticate back to the host controller via TLS. Note that only AP management traffic goes out over the Internet to the hosted controller--all client WLAN traffic stays on the local network.
Once you have configured SSIDs, security profiles and other critical parameters that will be used in the wireless environment, APs are quickly provisioned and users can connect. BlueSocket's packet-forwarding functionality is handled at the access point, which frees up the controller for management tasks, a key differentiator between vWLAN 2.0 and the competition, and the secret sauce behind a distributed technology that lets large WLAN environments escape the need for pricey, complicated controllers.
I created three wireless networks for the test. One used real 802.11n security and the high-throughput, wide-channel configuration, and two that were lesser WLANs typical of environments that need to support a wide range of client devices. All networks were broadcast in both of my test locations. To my mix of clients, these SSIDs simply worked. None of my laptops or handhelds seemed to care from a performance perspective that the "magic in the middle" was located in another state (my test sites were in New York, and the hosted controller was in Connecticut). Because data traffic stays local, there was no perceptible difference between vWLAN's abilities or any other on-site WLAN I have at my disposal to test against. One thing I really got a kick out of was that if a VLAN is needed by a client connected to an AP that does not have the VLAN, that traffic will be tunneled to another AP that does have the required VLAN.
After almost a decade of doing wireless, simply having signal come out of antennas with the right network name and profile does little to excite me, even at the triple-digit data rates delivered by 802.11n. The real TCO and payoff of a wireless system is in the management, monitoring, configuration and reporting modules that tend to be expensive-but-necessary options for environments of any size or complexity. This is an area where vWLAN 2.0 impresses, mostly. Configurations are intuitive and can be scheduled. Reporting is robust enough to be effective. The included NAC option (separate license) is as powerful as many others on the market, and BlueSocket's built-in guest access portal has been a favorite of the hotspot world for years. On the downside, while vWLAN 2.0 does provide the same sort of RF management tools (auto power, auto channel) that any real WLAN player does, and I did find the system's graphic al representation of AP "heatmaps" on floor plans to be on the rudimentary side.
BlueSocket's vWLAN 2.0 is ideal for distributed environments such as chain stores or multi-campus businessess. It packs a lot of value into a model that seeks to deflate the costs and complexities that have become associated with contemporary wireless networks. The vWLAN 2.0 offering can be extended to support a multi-site, cloud-based deployment without compromising on the core features offered under vWLAN, and based on my limited testing, measures up very well as a complete enterprise-grade solution.
Pricing for a BlueSocket appliance is $1,995. An IBM Blade X3250M3 preloaded with BlueSocket's software is $3,495. The company is finalizing the pricing for the virtual image, and says it will land somewhere between free and $495. BlueSocket is also working with its resellers to price out a hosted offering. The BlueSocket 802.11n a/b/g/n APs starts at $545.
Lee Badman is Syracuse University's Wireless Technical Lead, a network engineer, and Adjunct Instructor currently teaching Introduction to Computer Networks. Lee is also KI2K- Extra Class Amateur Radio Operator. Write to him at email@example.com.