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    dhicks's Avatar
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    Managed Wireless Systems

    Hello All,

    Managed wireless systems. I want one. How do they work? How can I make one? Specifically, what is it about a "managed" wireless solution that makes it cost £10,000 upwards, whereas just buying access points enough to cover our school would cost around £2,000? I've had a look at the websites for a couple of systems, which tend to be a little woolly on the detail side of things, but a "managed" wireless system seems to mostly consist of a central combined server/PoE switch and a bunch of access points. The access points don't generally seem to need to be plugged directly in to the server, although it seems that sales types will cheerfully try and flog you extra servers.

    So, basically, a managed wireless solution is a server that manages a bunch of access points. Is the Sputnik system suitible for use in schools - does anyone else use this system? This system would seem to consist of just access point, managed by a central server that is an application running on top of a CentOS Linux distribution - something I could just plonk on our existing system as a VM, no need to get extra bits of hardware or anything.

    In particular, does anyone know if the Sputnik system can handle the "high-volume" traffic that we gets in schools, i.e. 30 odd laptops in a classroom all trying to work at once? How do other systems handle this issue - do they simply reduce the power on each access point, reducing the interference between access points (but requiring more access points around the place, of course)?

    --
    David Hicks

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    Hi

    I would suggest having a look at an Extricom system it is a central controller with light weight access points that effectively act like radios. the system runs on one channel called a blanket. You are associated with the central controller not the individual ap so if you were to move you can move from ap to ap with out the need for the wireless devices to disassociate with one access point and then assocaite with another. if you need more through put you just add more radios and depending on what access points you get dual or quad you can run multiple types/ssids on different channels from each ap. Does not scale across fibre though so would need additional controllers for this.

    This is being installed in some high schools that my county support.

    rob

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    stevenlong1985's Avatar
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    GO FOR RUCKUS WIRELESS!

    Ruckus Wireless

    Ruckus Wireless ZoneFlex 7942 has a Gigabit network connection (PoE) Im installing that at the moment in school, its a lot cheaper than you think.



    http://net-ctrl.com/ get in contact with these lot they are the ones who helpped me out
    Last edited by stevenlong1985; 26th July 2008 at 02:51 PM.

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    The big advantage of managed systems over individual access points is that any changes are only done once on the central controller and not on each access point. All the access points get their configuration from the controller.

    I must agree with stevenlong1985

    We also went with net-ctrl. Two guys came in, one sales and one tech, gave us the spiel and a demo then left the kit with us to play with. It gave us the chance to carry out some basic range and capacity checks and to see how difficult it was to set up. The answers were great, great and easy!

    We were so impressed that we bought a controller and 16 access points which, like stevenlong1985, we are currently installing.

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    dhicks's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by chilbs View Post
    if you need more through put you just add more radios
    If all the access points are on the same channel, how does the central controller avoid the access points interfering with each other?

    Does not scale across fibre though
    Why not?

    --
    David Hicks

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    with a system like that above do you still need an external radius server and CA or does the controller deal with that also?
    Posted via Mobile Device

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    dhicks's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by stevenlong1985 View Post
    Ruckus Wireless <snip>, its a lot cheaper than you think.
    How much is it costing you, for how many access points / what size of school?

    --
    David Hicks

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    Quote Originally Posted by greatone View Post
    All the access points get their configuration from the controller.
    Has anyone used the Sputnik system? This seems to work by replacing the supplied firmware on the router with their own OS that then works with their own management server, thus, it would seem, you can do the centrally-managed part of things (central configuration) for the cost of some access points rather than having to buy a whole specialised bit of hardware.

    Thanks to everyone for your replies, but I'm really not asking for recommendations as to systems or which-reseller-is-best, that's just shopping - I want to know what a "managed wireless system" actually does, how one works. Having read through the information available on a couple of websites (the Extricom one included), I get the sneaky suspicion that the answer is "not much" or "nothing you can't do yourself". Most of the "information" available tends to be of the sales-waffle type, I want some more detailed information here if anyone has it.

    --
    David Hicks

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    Quote Originally Posted by dhicks View Post
    If all the access points are on the same channel, how does the central controller avoid the access points interfering with each other?

    --
    David Hicks
    With the Extricom system, the whole building is effectively covered by one access point with multiple outlets, the controller intelligently increases or decreses the power of each outlet to create a blanket coverage. You can flood your building with as many of these outlets as you like, and the system will simply work everything out else out for you.

    One advantage of this is you can run 3 seperate wireless networks within your school, on channels 1, 4 and 12 so you can have seperate wireless networks for Students, Staff and wireless VOIP services which in turn can be routed to different V-LANs etc. You can also be sure you will suffer no interference from access points using different channels like you may get with traditional wireless systems. It also means roaming problems become a thing of the past because to the device it appears as if its connected to the same access point no matter where you are in the building, the controller intelligently routes the traffic to the nearest outlet to the laptop, and handles all the switching of traffic as you move around the building.

    The main limitation to the system is each outlet must be directly connected to the controller by CAT5 cable as the outlets are effectively 'dumb' (all the work is done by the controller) the traffic to and from the outlets cannont traverse switches or media converters etc. However you can have more than one controller in a building, and these can communicate with each other over a network.

    If I were building a new build, I would definitely consider this system as the building could be wired for it easily. If I was fitting in an existing building a lot would depend on the ease of being able to run each cable back to a central location. If that was a problem, then a 'traditional' managed wireless system might suit your needs better.

    Mike.
    Last edited by maniac; 26th July 2008 at 07:06 PM.

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    Quote Originally Posted by maniac View Post
    the controller intelligently increases or decreses the power of each outlet to create a blanket coverage.
    I figured it might use this method - so the controller adjusts the power of each access point to create isolated "pools" of wireless coverage that don't interfere. Makes sense, but doesn't that mean that if a user is stood right in the middle of two "pools" they won't get a signal - won't there be gaps in the network?

    Seemingly Sputnik's custom access point firmware can also accomplish this power-adjustment trick - 0-251mW, their website reckons ("default is 28mW, 100mW is safe"). I don't know if their controller system can auto-adjust power settings as it senses interference between access points, but I figure even if we have to wander around for a day testing coverage it'll be worth it to save £8,000.

    the system will simply work everything out else out for you.
    Any details on how, exactly, this working out is done?

    The main limitation to the system is each outlet must be directly connected to the controller by CAT5 cable as the outlets are effectively 'dumb'
    The resellers I spoke to on Friday seemed to think that I could place individual access points with PoE injectors, the controller could be in a separate building. Said resellers could simply (actually, quite likely) be wrong, of course.

    --
    David Hicks

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    Quote Originally Posted by dhicks View Post
    I figured it might use this method - so the controller adjusts the power of each access point to create isolated "pools" of wireless coverage that don't interfere. Makes sense, but doesn't that mean that if a user is stood right in the middle of two "pools" they won't get a signal - won't there be gaps in the network?
    Because they are all controlled centrally, the unit can work out which transmitters are near each other, how far apart they are positioned and vary the signal strengths to ensure there are no gaps in coverage. If you think of the transmitters a merely 'arials' for a big access point (the controller) then it makes a little more sense. The coverage from each transmitter is allowed to overlap, the controller is clever and chooses in realtime which transmitter to use for a particular device. The laptops wireless adapter doesn't have to associate and deassociate with access points unless you move between different controllers

    The company I contacted did a brillient demo for us. Because the extricom sortware has the capability to show you what transmitter a device is talking to in real time, they had 3 connected to a controller and couple of VOIP handsets. Me and my network manager roamed around the room talking to each other and you could see the software changing the transmitter that each phone was talking to quite frequently according to which one was closest (They were all within 5 metres of each other as it was!) there was zero dropout on the conversation while we walked around. I was impressed needless to say.

    We didn't buy it unfortunitely as it was quite pricey (including installation) for our building because it was a large school on 3 floors with 3 different buildings to cover, meaning we'd need more controllers than normal, the controllers are what add cost to the system.

    Quote Originally Posted by dhicks View Post

    The resellers I spoke to on Friday seemed to think that I could place individual access points with PoE injectors, the controller could be in a separate building. Said resellers could simply (actually, quite likely) be wrong, of course.

    --
    David Hicks
    The communication between transmitter and controller on the extricom system definitely can't traverse switches, I specifically asked this question and was told no. They explained why as well. Each transmitter has to be Directly connected as the communcation between the transmitters and the controller is not done using a 'traditional' IP system, they are dumb, don't have an IP address or simelar and effectively 'talk' in their own language back to the extricom controller. The only bit with an IP address talking on your actual network is the controller itself.

    On a more 'traditional' managed wireless system, the access points are still intelligent in their own right, and generally have an IP number each and could (in theory) be administered seperately. They can be connected into whatever switch you like on your network as they all talk to each other and the rest of the network in normal IP packets. The controller unit with these just 'oversees' the wireless network, sends and retrieves information from them all and monitors them so you have a central point to control them and get information from.

    I would get a demonstration of the extricom system if you can, as it's a pretty unique type of wireless network as far as I know and I expect their sales or technical people could do a much better job of explaining it! I was certainly impressed as you can tell!

    Having read through the information available on a couple of websites (the Extricom one included), I get the sneaky suspicion that the answer is "not much" or "nothing you can't do yourself".
    With a more 'traditional'type of wireless system I would agree, but that's why I was so impressed with the Extricom system, as it is doing something totally different and unique and solves easily a fair few problems you can get with a traditional wireless system. It also works well and can be seen to work, that's why I was so instantly impressed with it, and why I don't mind raving about it on here!

    Mike.
    Last edited by maniac; 26th July 2008 at 09:46 PM.

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    Quote Originally Posted by maniac View Post
    The coverage from each transmitter is allowed to overlap
    If coverage overlaps, how come you don't get problems from interference?

    The company I contacted did a brillient demo for us.
    Your description sounds suitably impressive, although it's still rather pricey for us (we'd need several separate controllers too). I see there's currently some kind of offer on with different resellers for the Extricom "starter" kit - a controller with four access points for somewhere under £3,000-ish. We could probably use that just for our prep school - aiming for sections of the school to be covered rather than blanket coverage might be affordable.

    Each transmitter has to be Directly connected
    Makes sense - I think I'll avoid the reseller I spoke to on Friday in the future if they can't explain stuff clearly. Defiantly going to have to check out this Sputnik system, too.

    --
    David Hicks

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    SYNACK's Avatar
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    One core difference with a managed wireless system is the quality of the hardware involved. Lots of the standard APs and routers that you can buy come with an extremely limited amount of RAM and CPU speed. They often also have really rubbish power supplies which when put together are some of the main reasons that they are flaky even in a home environment.

    If a standard AP bogs down under the load of a single bittorrent connection due to insufficient memory to deal with that many connections at once it is likely to pull the same tricks when confronted with 10 to 15 clients no matter what software it is running.

    A manages wireless system may have APs that include two or more seporate radios enabeling them to run on multiple channels simultaniously and divide the clients up between them. The managed variety will oftern have radios that are more adjustable when it comes to power level enabling them to use output powers all the way up to the legal maximum.

    Other features are also avalible in some devices like the ability to automatically search for rogue wireless APs that are not in your network and suppress them by broadcasting on the same channels.

    You can do a lot with standard APs and I will probably have a look at that software that you meantioned as it sounds quite interesting. Overall I would liken it to the difference between server grade stuff and workstation grade stuff. Standard APs may be able to do most of the stuff but you do not get the same level of quality hardware wise so the reliability and overall speed are compromised without large levels of redundancy and extra tools in place.

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    dhicks's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by SYNACK View Post
    Lots of the standard APs and routers that you can buy come with an extremely limited amount of RAM and CPU speed.
    The Spunik website seems keen on the Linksys brand, which is handy as that's what we have. We could, of course, buy new access points from them, or buy the components to make our own.

    Can an "access point" simply be a PC with a wireless card in? Is there any fundamental difference in hardware between a PC's wireless PCI card and that in an access point?

    --
    David Hicks

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    Quote Originally Posted by dhicks View Post
    The Spunik website seems keen on the Linksys brand, which is handy as that's what we have. We could, of course, buy new access points from them, or buy the components to make our own.

    Can an "access point" simply be a PC with a wireless card in? Is there any fundamental difference in hardware between a PC's wireless PCI card and that in an access point?

    --
    David Hicks
    Linksys have issues with the amount of flash unless you have the linux based ones. They are also some of the worst offenders when it comes to bad PSUs, as proved at my house mere hours ago. Had a small power fluctuation and only two devices fell over, the 20 year old microwave and the 1 year old Linksys wireles router. A better made power supply brick would solve that issue though, it won't however solve the more limited RAM issue.

    You can switch a computer adapter to AP mode but it is dependant on the drivers. Back when wireless was new this was quite a common practice to build APs that would standup to a lot of traffic without spending vast amounts on a business grade one. It also depends on the radio power of the cards in question as not all cards are created equal and usually an AP will have a greater maximum output power than a card.

    To better replicate a propper managed ap you would probably be wanting to look at stocking your PCs with a couple of high power wireless cards and a nice cut down version of linux to handle all of the routing and managment overhead of the wireless networks.

    http://oob.freeshell.org/nzwireless/LWAP-HOWTO.html
    http://www.ibm.com/developerworks/library/l-wap.html
    http://www.linux.com/articles/55617
    Last edited by SYNACK; 27th July 2008 at 02:17 AM.

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