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Wireless Reviews

Introduction

Updated 17 Feb 2010: Corrections and clarifications from Meraki feedback.

Meraki overview

At a Glance
Product Meraki Hybrid Cloud Wireless System
Summary Wireless LAN system for Small to Medium Businesses with Cloud based management and mesh capability
Pros • Broad selection of AP hardware
• Simple to set up and administrate
Cons • No inexpensive N APs
• Real-time status is difficult to come by; can be frustrating to debug
• Can't manage the network without an Internet connection

Once upon a time (actually only a few years ago), mesh wireless networking was all the rage. And with the promise of self-configuring wireless LANs that could extend connectivity beyond the range of a single AP, why wouldn't it be?

So companies like Firetide, Tropos and even Motorola and eventually Cisco jumped on board the wireless mesh train. But their aim was not to help households easily configure reliable, whole-home coverage. Instead, their focus was, and still is today, building campus-wide and outdoor wireless networks for private and public customers.

A relative newcomer to mesh, Meraki had its roots in the Roofnet project developed at the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. According to this Ars article, MIT grad student Sanjit Biswas co-led the Roofnet team and co-founded its commercial spin-off, Meraki.

Meraki captured a lot of attention by initially developing a cheap ($50) 802.11b/g mesh node powered by free, open source software. But when the company exited Beta mode (and after receiving "less than $1 M" in venture funding from Google), it changed its pricing and service model to include higher hardware prices and a hosted services model for managing the mesh nodes.

In the hubub that ensued (described in these Wi-Fi Net News and DailyWireless pieces), up sprang Open-Mesh with a mission of continuing to produce affordable, "open mesh" hardware and management software for building mesh wireless networks.

I've been wanting to try out mesh wireless since I first heard about it. But acquiring compatible hardware and reflashing it with Open-Mesh's firmware was more work than I was able to set aside time for. So I contacted Open-Mesh at the end of 2008, asking them if they were interested in providing product for review, but never heard back.

So when Meraki contacted me last October and asked if I would be interested in checking out their new 11N APs and Enterprise Cloud Controller, I really couldn't say no. But the holidays, CES and a few other things got in the way until I was finally able to clear the decks and dive into Meraki-land.

The Meraki Approach

Meraki's target customers are typically looking for wireless networks serving from 50 to 5000 users, i.e. small to medium businesses / organizations. And many times these folks don't have wireless gurus on site to build and manage the WLANs.

So Meraki's focus is on simplicity and ease of setup, instead of the "speeds and feeds" focus of its competition. This approach extends all the way from its marketing material through the end product. But, as I found while working with the Meraki gear, this approach can sometimes be quite frustrating to users who know their way around wireless networks.

In keeping with its approach, Meraki recently revamped its website and marketing material to emphasize a focus on applications vs. features to prospective customers. This emphasis starts from the second you hit its site home page, which directs you to select either a Wireless LAN Solutions path (for "Business, Education, Manufacturing, Health Care") or Public WiFi Systems (for "Hotzones, Hospitality, Residential Developments").

The Public WiFi Systems landing page trumpets "Wireless Networks that Simply Work" and features pictures of its cute and cuddly $150 Indoor and $200 Outdoor 802.11b/g APs. While the Wireless LAN Solutions page features a bold exhortation to "Discover the Power of Cloud-Managed Wireless Access Points" with a photo of its no-nonsense business-grade MR series 802.11n AP.

Figure 1 shows Meraki's entire hardware product line so that you can get an idea of pricing. Note that the cheapest single-radio 11n AP (the MR11) costs $600—closer to Enterprise AP pricing than you might expect.

Meraki APs
Click to enlarge image

Figure 1: Meraki APs

All the 11b/g based hardware includes the ability to use it with Meraki's "Pro" Cloud Controller, without paying an additional license fee. But if you want 11n gear, then you need to step up to the "Enterprise" Cloud Controller, which costs $150 per AP for a one year license or $300 per AP for three years. The only exception is that you can buy the top-o-the-line, $1,500, three N radio MR58 and use it on a "Pro" Controller. Such a deal!

By the way, don't let the server racks and descriptions in Figure 2 fool you. The "Pro" and "Enterprise" Controllers have exactly the same feature sets. The only difference is the APs that you can use with them.

Updated 17 Feb 2010

Both the controllers shown in Figure 2 operate "in the cloud" and don't require any onsite hardware.

Meraki Cloud Controllers

Figure 2: Cloud Controllers

The difference between the Enterprise and Pro Controllers is summarized in Figure 2a below.

Enterprise vs. Pro Controller Features

Figure 2a: Enterprise vs. Pro Controller Features

You also don't have the option of having a local backup controller to keep your network managed in case your connection to the Cloud goes down. That is, unless you spend $1 M or more on hardware, in which case Meraki will discuss local controller pricing on a case by case basis.

Updated 17 Feb 2010

Note that in the event of an Internet outage that results in loss of contact with the Meraki "mother ship", your network will keep running. You just won't be able to manage or monitor it until your Internet service is restored.

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