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Meru Releases A Big Little Access Point- But Where Does It Fit?

The same wireless network market powerhouses that provide top-end systems must be seeing something that I don't. The market has always been a bit striated, with distinct layers for consumer-class and enterprise-grade hardware, and not a lot in between. But something new to the mix is definitely afoot, and in a growing market that I can only call "discount enterprise WLAN", Meru looks to be top-dog with its new AP1000i access point which has many of the features in their more expensive 3x3 AP 3000. If I invested in Meru's more expensive gear, I'd be miffed about a full featured but far less expensive model in the market. If I were shopping today, I'd probably shoot for the lower priced model. What gives?

I typically muse over the curious study in human nature that is the wireless space. We're bombarded with loose, mostly hard-to-prove performance promises of "six times this" and "nine times that" with latest 11n offerings, but users are usually happy if they can just connect and do their business without interruption. Those of us who consider our wireless networks to be critical spend a lot of money to get best-of-breed hardware installed and are frequently led along by the vendor to deliver world-class wireless that users may or may not even notice.

We happily accept our rewards in the form of reduced calls to the help desk and the knowledge that our clients don't have to think about the WLAN as they contentedly use it. If wireless clients in any density are taking the environment for granted because it always works well, then we've done our jobs right and our investments in wireless hardware with lots of horse-power are justified. But a recent call with Graham Melville, Meru's Director of Product Management, has me questioning what I think I know about wireless networks.

Meru's just-announced AP1000i takes its place alongside competitors like Cisco's 1040 access point in this new part of the WLAN market that I still don't quite get. Don't get me wrong- I'm not bashing the 1000i in the least. It's a good looking, feature-packed 802.11n access point that comes at an attractive price. And maybe that's why I'm confused.

The AP 1000i's promises high-end features in a low-price package. It sports an internal 2x2 MIMO antenna setup, is available in single or dual-radio configurations, uses encrypted backhaul across the Internet for "extended enterprise" capability, and is supported by Meru's EZ RF management system. It has on-board spectrum analysis, security, and troubleshooting capabilities that are certainly competitive differentiators.

The only real trade-offs I could glean from Melville are that the 1000i has less processing power than other Meru APs, no external antenna options, and less 11n MIMO wizardry than it's stable mate, the 3x3 AP 300 The 1000i is targeting the same markets that "bigger" APs also want to be in, like branch offices, the hospitality industry, and retail and educational spaces. And this brings me back to my own bewilderment.

If I'm a Meru customer who just spent top dollar on higher grade APs, and my sales rep tells me that now a lesser-priced model is "just as good", I might be a bit miffed. If I'm shopping for new APs from scratch, and hear the 1000i story, I may forgo even considering "better" Meru offerings. And if I'm the typical wireless user, I could probably give a rat's backside about whether I'm connected to a $395 list-price access point or a model that costs double. As an administrator, I still don't quite understand how I would employ the entry-level 1000i in place of higher-grade APs if a best-possible-quality-WLAN is my goal.

When I ponder using the 1000i (or Cisco's 1140 or any of the others in this tier) in all but the sparsest of user spaces, I can't help but question whether I've over-spent on better APs already bought or am somehow settling for something I'll regret later. I like the looks and the price of the 1000i, but I have to admit that beyond being cheaper, I don't really understand its place in the current WLAN market.