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Performance - more

During a telcon with Meraki, I learned of another tool that can be used to provide a client-eye's view of what's happening. If you hit http://my.meraki.com/ from a client associated with a Meraki AP, you can access a handy-dandy set of status information and test tools.

I took the screenshot in Figure 19 right after I ran the test shown in Figure 18 and it provides some interesting information. The Channel assignment of 44 means that the client connected using the 5 GHz band. And a 40 MHz channel width says that a full 300 Mbps maximum link rate is possible, which was confirmed by Windows wireless connection status. Finally, the Access Point Name of Office Gateway confirms that the client is, indeed, connected to the office gateway.

Client tool - Office Gateway AP connect
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Figure 19: Client tool - Office Gateway AP connect

You can also run a downlink (only) throughput test, the results of which are shown in the speedometer readout (85.46 Mbps) and correlate well with IxChariot.

I then walked the test client notebook upstairs to a spot about 10 feet away from the mesh-connected AP, while refreshing the AP status display. I was surprised to see the client switch over to using the Upstairs Mesh AP as soon as I got to the top of the stairs! I then launched an IxChariot throughput test, whose results are shown in Figure 20.

I have to confess that I was very surprised by 4 and 5 Mbps results, which seem like not much better than obtained with the much less expensive 11G Indoor and Outdoor mesh-connected APs.

Best case throughput - N client associated with N Mesh AP
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Figure 20: Best case throughput - N client associated with N Mesh AP

I was even more surprised when I ran the throughput test in the Client tool and got a 30 Mbps result (Figure 21). Looking closely, however, you can see my error. The test is from Access Point to Client, which doesn't include the mesh link. While the IxChariot test is all the way from client through the mesh to my local LAN.

By the way, note that the client is still connected in N, but in the 2.4 GHz band with a 20 MHz channel bandwidth. This means that the 31 Mbps throughput is a bit low for what I normally see for such a best-case (strong signal) connection. (I also don't know why this test tool thinks the Access Point name hasn't been set, since the Dashboard seems to know it by the name I gave it.)

Client tool - Upstairs Mesh connect
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Figure 21: Client tool - Upstairs Mesh AP connect

It turns out that by switching to the mesh neighbors tab, I could run a throughput test through the mesh link. Figure 22 shows a result of 865.3 KB/s (6.9 Mbps), which correlates reasonably well with the downlink throughput shown in Figure 17—that is, when the link isn't in one of the periodic throughput dropouts shown in both up and downlink runs.

Client tool - Upstairs Mesh AP connect - throughput test
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Figure 22: Client tool - Upstairs Mesh AP connect - throughput test

Another thing that I think I can infer from Figures 21 and 22 is that the mesh link is running through the 5 GHz radio on Channel 44, since the client is associated with the 2.4 GHz radio on Channel 1. I'm not positive of this, however, since both radios are capable of simultaneously handling client traffic and participating in a mesh connections. Only Meraki's algorithms know for sure!

If the mesh link really is running on the 5 GHz radio, then that could be one reason for the low mesh throughput because signals in the 5 GHz band are knocked down much more quickly than those in 2.4 GHz. So in Figure 22, the mesh link appears to have only a 9 dB connection on the 5 GHz radio instead of the 25 - 27 dB links shown in the Dashboard AP Neighbors sections—another example of oddities in the data provided in the Meraki dashboard.

As I noted at the start of this section, I didn't run my usual six location throughput measurements on the Meraki AP. This gear is clearly not meant for residential use and is also intended to be deployed in multi-AP installations, preferably Ethernet connected. But this quick check has provided at least me with some valuable insight on the performance (or lack thereof) provided by current-generation dual-radio N mesh APs.

Closing Thoughts

I have to thank Meraki for being brave enough to put its equipment in the hands of a reviewer who is more accustomed to dealing with consumer wireless gear than multi-AP managed wireless systems. This puts me at a disadvantage in not having the experience of working with other managed WLAN systems under my belt. So I don't really have anything else that I can compare Meraki's system with.

That said, I think Meraki has a broad enough hardware selection, including outdoor and even solar-powered APS, to enable network designers to build what they need. (A single-radio N AP about half the price of their $600 MR11, would be nice, however.) But its Cloud based controller left me feeling like it (and Meraki) was in control of my system rather than me, which is both a good and bad thing.

The good is that the Cloud Controller is great for folks who don't want to be bothered with the details and hassle of running a multi-node wireless network. Getting APs up and running really couldn't be much easier, although figuring out where to place them for best coverage and performance will require the services of an experienced installer. These folks may never even log into the Dashboard, leaving that to a reseller who they'll call when someone complains that their wireless-connected notebook can't get onto the Internet.

The bad is that those resellers will probably need to be armed with tools other than those found in the Dashboard, especially if they're trying to find interference sources or even accurate information on who is connected to what, right now.

Try as I might, I just kept finding too many instances of inaccurate or missing information to make me comfortable with my ability to easily and swiftly tell what was really happening on my little two-AP WLAN. If I had this much hassle with just two APs, I don't know what I'd do trying to troubleshoot a larger WLAN with the toolset that Meraki currently provides.

Meraki's roots may be in building community-focused wireless systems using open source software and cheap hardware. But that's where they've been, not where they're going. Their focus now seems to be on customers who can afford to drop around $5K on hardware, hundreds of dollars (at least) on yearly license fees and who are happy with 1 - 2 Mbps average client speeds.

Think web browsing, email and the occasional web video. Not Torrent downloading, lots of Hulu streaming or moving large files around, at least not with a lot of users. Yes, you can configure systems capable of higher total and per-user bandwidth. Just don't count on doing it with only a few inexpensive B/G APs, or a lot of mesh nodes.

If you're looking for a cheap mesh-based wireless system that can operate without a 24/7 Internet connection and provides real-time status and control of every node, then you'd best look elsewhere. But if your usage profile sounds like what I've described above and you've been thinking of getting rid of your cobbled-together network of DD-WRT-flashed routers and stepping up to an easy-to-set-up-and-use centrally-managed WLAN, you should probably give Meraki a look.

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