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WLAN Mesh Moves Into New Territory

The ethernet backbone's days of enterprise dominance may be numbered. Enterprise mesh systems, while not eliminating the need for a wired link, are extending the network infrastructure well beyond Ethernet's reach.

Enterprise mesh's benefit is clear: pervasive connectivity throughout the organization. Unbound by the constraints of copper or fiber, wireless mesh enables enterprises to deliver ubiquitous access and services to parts of their facilities that previously were untouchable by their wired architectures, while managing it as a subset of their overall wireless architecture.

As technologies such as voice over wireless LAN and better handheld devices make their way into enterprises, pervasive wireless coverage, including previously ignored areas such as stairwells and break rooms, will become more business-critical.

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Wireless mesh systems also let a network team quickly react to changing business demands with reusable resources. For example, meshed access points can be quickly deployed to provide network access in temporary office space or during special events such as trade shows, and just as easily pulled back when the extra capacity is no longer needed.

So why isn't every corporate net meshed up? Roadblocks remain. First, some WLAN vendors treat enterprise mesh as a premium feature, requiring additional licensing and fees. Second, many vendors limit mesh to specific access point models within their lineups. Typical mesh deployments require a dual-radio access point, with one radio serving clients and the other acting as a wireless backhaul. This is a particularly critical detail in 802.11n deployments, where new wireless devices might be forced onto the same radio frequency as older 802.11b/g clients.

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WLAN vendors such as Aruba Networks, Cisco, Meru Networks, and Trapeze Networks take a structured approach in their mesh offerings. Under these plans, both indoor and outdoor access points can be specifically defined and configured as mesh nodes within the network planning tools. With the Ethernet port on the access point now available, a node can serve wireless clients and bridge wired networks. Mesh allows an organization to manage the entire wireless network as a single entity.

Some vendors, notably Motorola and startup Aerohive Networks, offer a dynamic approach focused on wireless network resiliency and connectivity options. Access points from these vendors automatically provision a mesh network in the event of wired switch failure, delivering data through another access point to maintain the connection, without requiring administrator intervention. Aerohive and Motorola access points have this adaptive capability built in--thus making it a standard feature. Both companies are betting that a no-cost wireless mesh option will give them a competitive advantage, as well as drive greater adoption of the technology.

Wireless mesh systems are no longer the sole domain of wireless ISPs and municipal Wi-Fi projects, but are now in reach of the enterprise. Mesh will extend enterprise wireless LANs to areas previously unreachable and can build resiliency and failover into the corporate wireless network.

Almost all the wireless vendors, including Aruba, Cisco, Meru, and Motorola, have built some level of enterprise mesh into their WLAN offerings, as have startups such as Aerohive. Enterprise mesh is well on its way to being a standard option available on enterprise WLAN solutions--for a price.

Enterprise mesh is an excellent addition for any wireless engineer's toolbox. By extending the WLAN beyond the reach of Ethernet cabling, as well as building resiliency and flexibility into 802.11 solutions, mesh opens the door to truly pervasive wireless coverage in the enterprise and offers the flexibility to adapt to changing business environments.