Meru Looks to Make Wi-Fi as Reliable as Ethernet

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On Monday, Meru Networks announced virtual ports, a technology designed to make Wi-Fi networks as reliable as wired Ethernet. IDG News Service interviewed the CEO of Meru, Ihab Abu-Hakima, on a visit to London.

Meru's product controls wireless access points centrally, to support wireless LAN access throughout a building, but the company has championed a different approach from rivals Aruba, Cisco and Trapeze (now owned by Belden). Its virtual cell architecture puts all the access points on the same channel, and holds all the BSSIDs (Wi-Fi's equivalent of a MAC address) centrally. The company has now added the ability to partition the network so each client gets the equivalent of a wired network port.

Abu-Hakima formerly worked at Western Multiplex, a wireless company bought by Proxim, where he became a senior vice president. He joined Meru in 2004, just as the wireless startup was beginning to deliver products.

IDG: What is the story behind the Meru architecture?

Abu-Hakima: The first centralized wireless LAN controllers dealt with the problem of managing and securing access points. Meru said that is not enough. Sooner or later, most enterprises will be running on wireless, and that means tens of thousands of devices, with users wanting an interactive experience including real-time applications such as voice.

The 802.11 specification was designed for standalone access points, providing best-efforts communications. When two access points are put together, it produces co-channel interference.

Legacy Wi-Fi controllers solved this by putting each access point on a different channel. Meru's founders came out of the cellular space, and that seems inefficient to them, as the most precious resource is spectrum.

In legacy Wi-Fi, the client has control of its connection to access points, but in cell-phone networks, the infrastructure has control. All the base stations are on the same channel and managed centrally. It has to be that way, to deliver quality of service and mobility for every user.

IDG: What does this do for users?

Abu-Hakima: It completely changes the rules in wireless networking. With legacy wireless LAN equipment, network staff have had to do wireless site surveys, and monitor and adjust power levels and channels of wireless LAN equipment. With virtual cells and virtual ports, It gets those resources back and can apply them to other opportunities.

When customers deploy Meru networks, they get the return on investment they were expecting from wireless.

IDG: Why are virtual ports a big step?

Abu-Hakima: Access points have essentially been shared hubs. Now we have made the wireless LAN into a switched infrastructure, isolating each device and each user from each other. Only it's more than that, because it turns the cable into a fabric, and the user gets the same port anywhere in the building, or on the campus.

We really believe this will change enterprise networking. Combined with the fast 802.11n standard, it can deliver all the advantages and benefits of wired networks, plus full mobility, at around one-fifth of the cost of a wired port.

IDG: Does it really work that well? It must be hard to set up a wireless LAN on a single channel, when most buildings are surrounded by interference on all channels from public and private Wi-Fi in neighboring buildings.

Abu-Hakima: We've not noticed this, even with users like the School District of Philadelphia. There we had 30,000 radios in 100 buildings, and we had to negotiate with Philadelphia's famous municipal Wi-Fi network - and that is an outdoor network which is allowed to operate at much higher power levels than our indoor equipment.

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