Lee H. Badman

Network Computing Blogger

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Meru Announces New 11ac AP, Throws Punches

The battle for early 802.11ac market share heats up as Meru Networks announces the AP832 access point, which it claims is the world’s fastest, thanks to Meru’s proprietary single-channel architecture. The WLAN vendor is also taking shots at competitors, including Cisco and Aruba.

Picking on the other guy has always been part of wireless marketing strategy, but it typically happens via whitepapers or a paid lab study that proclaims one vendor’s stuff better than the others. But Meru threw punches directly at competitors during my briefing.

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After finding fault with 11ac-related quotes from named Aerohive and Ruckus engineers, Meru held up Cisco’s and Aruba’s 11ac offerings as inferior to the 832. For example, Meru claimed Cisco’s 11ac module for the flagship 3600 AP has design flaws where its antennas are blocked by the AP’s chassis, thereby impacting performance. Aruba took a hit from Meru for only being able to deliver 60% of 11ac’s potential on standard PoE. I think Meru is about mostly right about Aruba, but I can’t validate its Cisco critique. Regardless, I have a feeling the 11ac rollout could get even nastier as more vendors try to one-up each other when it comes to 11ac.

So what makes Meru’s 832 the self-proclaimed fastest access point available? The 832 packs two dual-band three-stream 11ac radios, where competitors usually provision one 5-GHz 11ac radio and one 11n radio for 2.4-GHz clients per access point.

[The 802.11ac standard is going to bring significant changes to WLANs. Find out what’s in store in “11ac’s First Wave: What to Expect.”]

By virtue of simple math, more radios that can be used at wider channels equal more aggregate bandwidth. Meru also offers user-definable ways to divvy it up across the radios in software. This is a fair enough claim, but the rest of the story comes from Meru’s unique—and proprietary—single-channel super-cell architecture.

Other vendors urge varying degrees of caution when using the wide channels required in 11ac to reach the highest available throughputs. That’s because of the scarcity of channels in the 5-GHz band when you widen them out in traditional multichannel/multicell fashion, and because of the back-off mechanisms that are in play when neighboring wide-channel WLANs bump against each other.

Meru takes a different approach, in which WLANs made up of large numbers of APs all share a single channel. Meru can give specific applications, SSIDs, or client types their own channels from the same APs. On paper, it looks like Meru offers the most capacity of existing products, but real-world performance always depends on a variety of factors in individual deployments, including client type. For instance, wireless clients have to be able to take advantage of wide channels, but the industry is just starting to roll out 11ac devices that support various versions of channel width and stream counts. In any case, no one should ever take vendor claims at face value.

In addition to the AP, Meru announced Director 6.0 and E(z)RF 4.0 management system software upgrades, which are required for 11ac support. The software also provide device OS fingerprinting, which can be used to determine privileges and performance classes for different device types.

The new software also includes more sophisticated Bonjour gateway functionality. Apple continues to laugh all the way to the bank on its dated and limited Bonjour protocol while WLAN vendors are out-doing each other to provide creative solutions so customers can use popular consumer-grade Apple devices in the business WLAN despite Bonjour’s many shortcomings. Meru claims sophisticated service discovery and advertising policies to make Bonjour more usable and manageable in complicated WLAN environments.

You’d expect vendors to compete on performance. Meru also wants to compete on price. The 832 AP, which is supposed to ship in the third quarter of this year, lists for $1,295. That’s about a $100 more than its 11n APs for a 3x performance increase. In other words, Meru is pricing its new APs to move (though it’s not the only vendor doing so). Other WLAN vendors can probably shrug off Meru’s criticisms, but this pricing strategy may get them to take notice.

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