Ruckus Makes Noise in the SMB WLAN Space

Ruckus Wireless' ZoneFlex Smart WLAN is well worth a look for small businesses considering a move to a controller-based architecture.

Ruckus Wireless' ZoneFlex Smart WLAN solution goes out of its way to make wireless networking simple for small business customers.

With its easy initial setup and ongoing management, innovative client configuration tools and outstanding use of advanced antennae technologies to lengthen the functionality of the network, ZoneFlex is well worth a look for small businesses considering a move to a controller-based architecture.

I tested the ZoneDirector ZD1006 ($1,200), which is licensed to support six access points. The ZoneDirector 1000 series (up to $6,000) will support up to 50 concurrent APs (access points), which will allow customers to grow their network to support a much larger floor space over time. Ruckus also recently announced the 3000 series of appliances, which support up to 250 APs.

I tested the ZoneDirector in conjunction with Ruckus' ZoneFlex 2942 ($349) 802.11b/g APs. The 2942 features Ruckus' BeamFlex technology, which employs beamforming techniques to dynamically select the right antennae combination to optimize an active client's performance at longer distances. Each access point has 12 embedded antennae (6 in a horizontal deployment, 6 vertical), allowing a total of 4,096 distinct antenna combinations which allow each access point to support a wider coverage area than standard access points using two or three diversity antennae.

To ease initial setup of a ZoneFlex network, Ruckus uses many tools that would be quite familiar to someone accustomed to setting up home networks. For instance, when I first plugged in the ZoneDirector appliance, the device automatically advertised itself via UPnP (Universal Plug and Play), allowing me to easily locate it for configuration. The configuration page automatically launched a wizard that walked me through the setup of two WLANs: a production network that I could secure with the full gamut of wireless security protocols (WPA and WPA2 are supported in both PSK and Enterprise flavors), as well as an unencrypted guest network.

When first connected to the network, Ruckus APs will automatically broadcast their presence to the network, allowing the ZoneDirector to automatically pull the device under management and push out the configuration profile. After initial network deployment, administrators should disable the AutoApprove feature on the ZoneDirector, which will force the administrator to manually approve devices before they can join the network.

The ZoneDirector 1000 series supports a maximum of four concurrent WLANs, which meant that I could simultaneously advertise a data network, a voice network, a guest network and one other at the same time (the ZoneDirector 3000 supports eight WLANs). Unfortunately, every AP that reports to the ZoneDirector will get the same WLAN configuration, so I could not target the guest network to advertise only in access points supporting public areas, such as lobbies or conference rooms. Ruckus will need to resolve this problem as they continue to grow its solutions to target larger network deployments.

The ZoneDirector offers a limited number of self-healing services. The ZoneDirector can adjust an AP's radio channel when it detects interference. I found this feature to be a little bit too sensitive, with radios flopping between channels several times per minute in some instances. Unfortunately, the product's sensitivity threshold is not configurable.

In addition to interference detection, periodic channel scans also provide some intrusion prevention services, such as support for detecting rogue access points or for blocking clients who repeatedly fail authentication or make excessive wireless requests. The solution only handles over-the-air rogue detections, so the system could not distinguish between APs connected to the same wired network and APs that simply share the same airspace.

I particularly liked ZoneDirector's Web-based configuration and management pages. The product's dashboard employs a customizable widget-based structure, which allowed me to select the views of my network I wanted to see by default-such as the most active APs or clients, the current status of my devices, or the most recent system alerts. I could further drill down into specific management pages for more information, including an interactive map page from which I could predict coverage areas for my network or locate potential rogue APs, a set of user and guest pass management pages or a viewer for in-depth logs that report unusual activities of external devices.

I especially liked the speedy search function that powers the log, which enabled me to quickly find all instances of a particular kind of alert or of activities pertaining to a specific device.

By default, users of the guest network are redirected to a captive portal Web page, where they are required to enter temporary guest credentials in order to access the network. Corporate users are allowed to create guest passes, provided the wireless administrator has assigned them the proper permissions (via a Role). The wireless administrator can also centrally control the life of guest passes by expiring the passes a certain amount of time after the pass is either created or first used. Once a guest user connects, they are then denied access to any networked resources on the local subnet - and administrators can further customize the network to deny access to other subnets as well.