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May 20, 2007

Ruckus Latest Shout-Out: Small and Medium Sized Business Gear

Easy configuration, low cost, no RF experience required, the company says: Ruckus Wireless, an ahead-of-the-curve wireless gear maker that, until now, has looked to bridging metro-scale networks into homes and distributing media around a house over Wi-Fi for IPTV (Internet Protocol Television) providers as its key markets is expanding into the SMB space, offering small-to-medium-sized businesses a new line of easy-to-configure, inexpensive products that can achieve enterprise-like results.

In a briefing last week, CEO Selina Lo said, "We saw that for the SMBs, there's a big need for a complete wireless LAN solution made simple -- so simple that you don't need IT operators." A problem that I've heard consistently expressed by SMBs is that with no or few full-time IT staffers, enterprise-scale WLAN technology is not just an order of magnitude too expensive, but would require too much in-house expertise to run. "There are lots of companies from 50 to 500 people -- they still need completely secure and robust and critical Wi-Fi solutions," Lo said.

Lo said that the company will have three offerings: auto-discovery access points, including their existing 802.11g ZoneFlex 2925 access point, which is ready to work with their new system, and a planned 802.11n addition in the third quarter; a controller, called ZoneDirector, that manages and directs the functions of APs, as well as handles authentication; and FlexMaster, a remote administration tool, which will ship in the fourth quarter.

The 802.11g access point lists for $259; an office-building oriented model (2942) will ship in July for $349, and sport power over Ethernet and a plenum-space fire rating. The ZoneDirector 1000 series comprises three models that manage a maximum of 6, 12, or 25 access points, and cost, respectively, $1,200, $2,000, and $3,500. They ship in July. The 802.11n access point and FlexMaster tool have not yet had their pricing set.

Lo said the company will also offer a starter pack of six 2925 access points and the entry-level six-AP ZoneDirector for $2,000, a discount of about $750 off list.

The company has also developed a simple security alternative that occupies a niche between WPA/WPA2 Personal's preshared key and the authentication server-driven WPA/WPA2 Enterprise system. They call this Dynamic PSK, and say patents are pending.

Lo said that the new system extends its BeamFlex antenna technology to work across a group of access points that use mesh technology to connect together. Each AP can choose the appropriate hop that makes the most sense from an overall radio frequency (RF) perspective. "We tend to be much better mesh candidates in that we don't tend to interfere as much with neighbor APs, because the beam just moves." Lo noted that the company has shipped 1m units with BeamFlex technology. "We know how to do this, and it's not like we come out from the left field. This is a proven technology we are now extneding to a network of access points," she said.

Ruckus's approach appears to be unique because there are not yet any meshing systems that can auto-discover mesh nodes through analysis of signal paths using multiple antennas. Ruckus has six vertical and six horizontal antenna elements which their system can use in any combination with varying signal strength on a packet-by-packet basis. With a few exceptions, metro-scale network vendors are still using 802.11g radios and single-in, single-out radio technologies. Enterprise wireless LANs make better use of RF coordination indoors, but are price well out of the SMB market. And WLAN technology that uses commodity gear--RoamAD and Meraki, to name two--don't employ MIMO antennas.

Ruckus's networking system also actively avoids interference. "If there is a source of interference that is substantial, instead of choosing a beam that steers to the client, we might choose a beam that cancels out interference," Lo said.

Up to 10 APs can mesh into a cluster, but Lo says the company has no interest in competing against metro-scale vendors who have substantially different requirements for their network build outs. Ruckus's MetroFlex bridges are a popular option, in competition with non-MIMO devices from Pepwave, for bringing metro-scale network signals indoors.

With a self-forming mesh, Lo says that network planning is reduced substantially, and SMBs don't need any RF expertise. She said that common sense and relatively little work will result in a working network that can be easily tweaked as every mesh and wired node will auto-discover the best routes. SMBs may choose to roll out their own Ruckus networks, or work with existing integrators and value-added resellers who already plan and build networks.

On the security front, Lo said that Dynamic PSK avoids an SMB having to purchase and run an 802.1X server that handles accounts and key assignment. These servers cost as little as $200 for 100 users or $300 for unlimited users, and enterprise-scale servers start at about $2,500 for 50 users including IT-managed client software. While Windows XP and Vista and Mac OS X 10.3 and later include 802.1X clients (called supplicants), configuring these clients is a bear; separately purchased client software that can be more centrally configured and distributed costs $25 to $50 per computer.

Dynamic PSK works through a Java applet that's downloaded at an authentication portal, which is hosted on the ZoneDirector. The Ruckus access points use their own techniques to restrict access to non-authenticated systems--a combination of port-based access control and virtual SSIDs to allow non-encrypted stations to connect--and tunnel authentication securely back to the ZoneDirector as in an 802.1X session.

The Java applet allows a user to be authenticated once, and then the applet configures network settings, assigning a 63-byte WPA/WPA2 key unique to that user. The zone controller handles the authentication, and works with the access points to deal with keys. Keys can be revoked through the controller, too, or set to have an expiration for visitors. The applet works in Windows, Mac OS X, and Windows Mobile.

The first controller, the ZoneDirector 100, can handle up to 25 APs, and can fallover to a second controller as a fail safe. APs self-discover the controller, which then automatically configures them. The configuration screen can be customized to provide a dashboard that meets an SMB's needs. The controller can provide a rough heatmap of the layout of a network because APs have directional elements.

Ruckus's extension into the SMB market is good timing. With more businesses below the enterprise scale attempting to build secure, robust networks, the only options at the moent are scaled up from weaker consumer gear or scaled down from overwhelmingly complicated enterprise systems. With a tailor-made offering, Ruckus might provoke competition in a woefully underserved market.