Wi-Fi equipment manufacturer Meru Networks has unveiled its Smart Connect solution, which allows enterprises to seamlessly and securely configure and control devices brought to work by employees on their wireless LAN.
The widespread trend of bring your own device (BYOD) to work means the number and complexity of Wi-Fi devices hitting the network is increasing rapidly, which is placing high usage demands on WLANs.
This is making it challenging for IT managers to provide secure access to the enterprise’s WLAN, and to install and provision each device with the desired IT policies. Each device must be manually programmed, which is labour intensive.
In traditional WLAN solutions, it is difficult to deliver enterprise applications to each device and ensure reliability and quality of service. It also makes it hard to monitor and enforce IT policies, or to scale up the existing network to meet demand.
Kamal Anand, VP development at Meru, tells Wireless: ‘In the past, employees usually used a device provided by their business. Now there are many more devices around owned by the employee being brought into work. The challenge for an IT manager is how does he let these devices access the network securely and enable them to work usefully?
‘He can go to an open network, as anyone can use it, but it is insecure and can be seen by everyone. Or, the employee only uses his device for personal use, because he is denied access to work apps – that’s not productive. So, we are trying to deal with this challenge.’
Smart Connect uses the 802.1x (WPA/WPA2) authenticated protocol for enterprises to cope with all these different devices. Once deployed in an enterprise it automatically detects each device coming onto the network and provides auto-provisioning.
Anand says: ‘In traditional WLANs, it is difficult because the network has got to identify iOS, Android Gingerbread or Windows devices. But you can’t expect the IT manager to configure each device individually. What we provide is one-click provisioning. You get secure access; you download software onto the device according to the policies determined by company, which dictates the terms of access and security. And it’s a one time load, so when you come back the network will recognise your device. This is what we address. We support multiply applications, such as voice, video and telemetry.’
Anand says that once this is done the quality of the user experience is improved; it becomes secure, because it is encrypted; and the IT manager does not have to configure each device, so it becomes a very scalable solution capable of taking on many different types of devices very quickly and simply.
Dave Kelly, VP of international sales, adds: ‘It’s not about the user getting access to the network. It is about the number of devices coming onto the network, as each user may have several devices.
Because you have different devices with different speeds, we can ensure you can transmit at 802.11n speed and someone else at 802.11g speed. The point is your fast device doesn’t get slowed down to the lowest common dominator, which is what normally happens. We call it airtime fairness.’
Kelly continues: ‘Our ability here is to have a solution that can go across any network and help them manage all these different devices. A lot of enterprises are not planning a refresh for their WLAN, but they are being hit be this wave of data demand, so we provide an instant fix update.’
Smart Connect is heterogeneous in nature, so it works on a Wi-Fi or wired network and can be integrated into existing WLANs supplied by another vendor. ‘It’s a software solution. Of course, we hope that when they do upgrade their WLAN they will talk to us,’ says Anand.
What needs to be understood is that Meru’s virtualized wireless LAN uses a very different architecture to conventional systems.
Anand explains: ‘In traditional systems the client device is in control. It chooses which radio frequency (RF) and AP to connect to and when to hand off to the next AP. It may not make the optimal decision and that can affect every other user on the network. Our virtualized network puts the IT manager in control of that.
‘Traditionally, the device connects to a physical server, but if it can’t get on, it has to find another. That’s a complex technology to manage and make scalable. We have virtual cell: all the APs look like one giant AP. It still follows the 802.11 protocol of associating with one AP, but it is we who decide which device connects to which AP.’
In Meru’s Smart Connect solution the client’s apps connect to virtualized data centres and servers. Anand describes the AP as like a light bulb. ‘You don’t care which light bulb is giving you light and if the client needs more coverage or density, we just plug in another AP. It is so simple to conceptually understand and use. IT managers don’t need to know about RF channels.
‘From a customer perspective, our solution uses a single channel architecture. It acts as a virtual cell for everyone to get on to. You don’t have to worry about having to hand onto another cell. It is not a cell architecture mesh design. It’s like a blanket, so there are no handover issues or drops in coverage – and that includes vertical coverage, as well as horizontal,’ points out Anand.
Kelly adds: ‘A user can log on quickly and be mobile around the building. A network is not a static item, it changes and grows as you load more onto it, be that more apps or video. The client might want to extend coverage across the whole office or campus. You need to make that as simple as possible.’
Anand says that 802.11n Wi-Fi networks use MIMO (multiple in multiple out) solutions, which make reconfiguring a network more difficult. ‘Our competitors have to remap and reconfigure their networks when they are extended and new APs are added. We don’t have to do that, so our solution is much more cost effective.’
Smart Connect authenticates the user’s device using web authentication and with one click it configures to Meru’s 802.1x system, which provides secure, encrypted guest access. The system supports Windows, Mac OS, iOS and Android and a variety of protocols, including WPA, WPA2 and 802.1x.
Meru’s AP400 features a three-radio, three-stream design with the ability to add a fourth radio. Spectrum analysers and RF sensors are integrated into the APs for proactive detection and resolution of RF interference. Meru claims the APs deliver 50% higher capacity than any enterprise solution available today.
The company also supplies two controllers to manage the APs from a central location, along with software to troubleshoot the networks. The MC3200 is designed for mid-size WLANs supporting up to 200 apps, while the MC4200 supports up to 500 apps. Both have 4 x gigabit Ethernet Ports and the MC4200 also features a 2 x 10GB Ethernet module.
Anand says Smart Connect has much wider applications. ‘One of the challenges for the mobile carriers is how to make the switch when a user switches to Wi-Fi in a Wi-Fi zone. Since we have a solution that works across major mobile phone platforms such iOS, Windows and Android, we can configure the device once it connects to the Wi-Fi network, so it then gets configured to the carrier’s policy.’
Kelly says the value proposition of its solution has given the company a lot of success. ‘Hospitals, universities, schools, warehouses and manufacturing plants use wireless as a key part of their business now. They have highly mobile staff, such as nurses or factory worker. Or you have a lot of users, such as 32 in a class or university auditorium. Either they are using their devices a lot or there are a lot of users.
‘Wherever people want full coverage and are looking at the density requirements and how to handle that, along with quality of voice if they want that, that is where our technology stands out. We probably have around 1,000 schools running Meru systems in the UK alone from primary and secondary schools to colleges and universities, he says.
Meru currently has some 5,500 customers in 56 countries. ?