Product review: The sweetest wireless LAN system

Ruckus Wireless' ZoneFlex Smart WLAN System is powerful, easy, and yes, smart, making managed wireless networks a no-brainer for small deployments

Small businesses have, for some time, been able to easily deploy a wide-open access point or two, or put together a couple of access points with a basic level of security. The thing that hasn't been easily available is a small, secure, managed wireless network that's easy to deploy and administer, and priced for the needs of a smaller business. Now there is such a thing, and its existence does a good job of highlighting what we've been missing. The solution is the Ruckus Wireless ZoneFlex Smart WLAN System, and it is a very good thing, indeed, for the SMB wireless market.

Ruckus Wireless uses three components -- access point, controller, and optional wireless bridge -- to build its network. The management console isn't separate, but built into the controller; you reach the controller through a Web interface discovered via network plug and play. I found that I could set up a single secure network in less than five minutes, and establish more complex networks (say, one for guests who get the password from an authentication Web site or a receptionist) in a few minutes more. While the system wouldn't hold up to configuring scores of access points scattered across multiple subnets, that's not the market Ruckus is trying to serve. The product is aimed squarely at SMB wireless LANs, and it's the best I've seen for the small-business market.

Three components
The three basic components of a Ruckus Wireless network each fill distinct roles. The ZoneFlex 2942 AP (starting at $349) is a "fat" AP, with enough intelligence to continue providing network access even if the link to the controller is lost. The ZoneFlex 2925 AP (starting at $259) is an access point with a small five-port switch in the base so that wired components can be linked to the network across a wireless link. The ZoneDirector central management console (starting at $1,200) brings easy configuration and management functions to the party, tying everything together into a coherent system.

An innocuous-looking off-white lump, the ZoneFlex 2942 AP is designed to blend into ceilings and walls without calling attention to itself. The AP can be powered by an AC adapter or through PoE, and the Ruckus engineer I spoke with said that many customers were using the PoE option to minimize the number of cables that had to be run through existing walls and ceilings.

One of the more impressive aspects of both the 2942 and 2925 access points is the use of MIMO (multiple-input/multiple-output) technology to maximize the usable range of the signal. You'll be hearing more about MIMO as 802.11n products begin to hit the market, but the main point to know now is that radio waves tend to bounce around inside rooms. The bounces mean that the same information will arrive at the receiver at slightly different times, owing to the different paths the signals have taken. To compensate, regular radios focus on one strong signal and filter out all others. A MIMO receiver can cope with multiple signals, allowing it to keep a working connection to a transmitter that might be a bit farther away. Using MIMO for an 802.11 b/g wireless access point is a forward-thinking move. Using it for an access point designed for the SMB market is impressive. In testing at my office, I found that a single Ruckus AP would easily provide solid coverage over a multiroom area that normally requires two APs to adequately cover.

If you need a network presence at a location beyond the reach of a Cat-6 cable, the ZoneFlex 2925 can serve as a wireless bridge and extend the network's reach by distances of 100 feet or more (depending on the terrain involved). The 2925 is visually distinct from the 2942 (it's a broad plastic "C" that's roughly the same size as the 2942) and is remarkable for the simplicity it brings to the network. Many companies won't need one, but if you do (say, if you want to provide network coverage in an outlying garage or barn), then deploying the 2925 can overcome a variety of hassles and headaches.

The heart of the system is the ZoneDirector, a central controller that coordinates and manages the Ruckus wireless network. Reached through a browser-based management console, the ZoneDirector with its associated software is what really separates Ruckus from other WLAN systems. Setting up a nicely secure wireless network (hidden SSID, WEP -- you know, the basic stuff) is incredibly simple. Even nicer, thanks to the straightforward configuration GUI, it's not much more difficult to set up a series of wireless networks to meet the needs of a variety of different users.

One WLAN, many networks
In fact, Ruckus allows you to set up five separate networks on each ZoneFlex AP. So after configuring the basic secure network, I next set up a guest network on a separate SSID. The guest network had an open SSID, but initial contact with the network brought up a Web page that asked for a daily password, which could be made available to visitors from an attendant or receptionist, for example. I also set up a customer network on a third SSID. This network launched a page that required the user to agree to an explicit user policy and enter their name and e-mail address as user credentials. I found the ability to set up multiple networks to be useful. The fact that it took me no more than 15 minutes to set up any of the networks was truly impressive. (A note: I could have set up the networks in less than 10 minutes each if I hadn't gotten fancy with the graphics on the customer network. I really enjoyed putting the InfoWorld Test Center logo and my own fascinating terms of use on the log-in page. It's a weakness.)

Once the networks are set up, the ZoneDirector controller gives you all the information you'll need to manage them with no more complication than required in the initial deployment. A status screen shows each access point and all the clients associated with them. Another section shows rogue APs and rogue clients, along with options for dealing with the rogue clients. Among those options, by the way, are locking them out, sending them to the DMZ so that they're essentially harmless, or severely rate-limiting them so that they'll stick around long enough to be found and apprehended.

Because each of the access points also serves as a monitoring point, if you import a drawing of your building, you can get a nifty heat map of wireless coverage. To be brutally honest, I've always thought this particular function was more sizzle than steak when vendors have demonstrated it to me, but it's common in high-end systems, so I have to believe that customers find it useful.

Ripe for a Ruckus?
Ruckus is perfect for SMBs that want to manage a secure wireless system for their employees, but don't want to have to hire a wireless networking expert to deploy and administer the WLAN. Other wireless LAN systems, when driven by a WLAN expert or two, can do what Ruckus does, but the Ruckus system brings sophisticated deployment and management options to the table in a manner that makes them accessible to network generalists. For SMBs that want the same level of WLAN performance that large enterprises take for granted, without the networking skills and staffing requirements, Ruckus should be at the top of the list.

If you're an SMB that wants to provide wireless access to both employees and guest users, whether partners or customers, and keep both internal and guest networks secure, then Ruckus's ability to provide multiple networks on a single set of APs can make your life much easier and your wireless infrastructure much more useful. Finally, the performance provided by the Ruckus AP with its MIMO architecture and software-steerable antenna is good enough that it can reduce the overall number of APs required in many situations.

Ruckus isn't the least expensive option available to the SMB market. But it's one of the best combinations of price and performance you'll find.

InfoWorld Scorecard
Value (10.0%)
Security (20.0%)
Performance (15.0%)
Ease of administration (15.0%)
Management (20.0%)
Setup (20.0%)
Overall Score (100%)
Ruckus Wireless ZoneFlex Smart WLAN System 9.0 8.0 9.0 9.0 9.0 9.0 8.8
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