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Is there really a big difference between cheap, residential-grade wireless APs and expensive, busine

Is there really a big difference between cheap, residential-grade wireless APs and expensive, business-grade wireless APs?

It seems like you get a much better experience with business class wireless APs than with the cheaper alternatives...

offered at Best Buy and the like. I recently installed a Cisco Aironet 1130 for a customer and noticed an instant improvement over the Linksys residential class AP they used to have. They are in a shared space with many other wireless networks near by. When configuring the Cisco, I noticed that it had something like 48 different channels compared with the typical 11 channels offered on residential class units. Is this psychological (i.e., I paid 6 times more so I feel like it is better quality) or have you found that there's really a difference?

Psychology may play some role, but in my experience, there are very big differences between $50 residential-grade APs and $500 enterprise-class APs.

As you noticed, entry-level home APs have a single 802.11b/g radio. Enterprise-class APs like the 1130 have dual radios that simultaneously support 802.11a and 802.11g. Sure, you can find cheaper a/g APs for home use -- for example, the Linksys WRT55AG. And you can find more expensive g-only APs for business use. But enterprise-class APs are engineered for higher-density use, supporting more concurrent clients, with higher throughput. Enterprise-class APs are also more likely to support external antennas so that coverage can be optimized, as opposed to home AP "rubber ducky" dipoles.

Many residential APs are actually wireless routers that integrate features required by home networks into a single box: a wireless AP, a broadband firewall/router, a 4-port Ethernet switch, and a DHCP server. This bundling is very convenient at home, but doesn't make sense in a larger business LAN. In a corporate network, you probably already have Ethernet switch(es), a business-grade firewall, and a WAN access router. In that environment, it makes more sense to add APs that can focus on delivering wireless access to the LAN. This lets you deploy several APs, placing them where coverage is needed, letting users roam from one AP to another while using the same IP address to stay connected to the business network.

Even if you compare the functions provided by an entry-level home AP (not router) to an enterprise-class AP, you'll find striking differences. Entry level home APs have relatively simple configuration interfaces, managed thru HTTP or SSL and a single password-protected login. Enterprise APs have more secure, distributed management interfaces. They support SNMP, SSH, and SYSLOG protocols commonly used for business network management, with multiple admin accounts and configurable permissions. WLAN configurations may be generated by a central management system or "WLAN switch" and pushed to APs. That supervisory system may also apply as-needed configuration changes, such as adjusting one AP's transmit power when another AP fails or is added. Manually configuring and monitoring a large number of home APs just doesn't scale.

Home APs support one network name (ESSID), tied to one set of security parameters (e.g., WEP, WPA-PSK, WPA (802.1X/RADIUS), WPA2-PSK, WPA2). Business-class APs are designed to concurrently support multiple workgroups that may not deserve the same security. That's why enterprise APs support multiple ESSIDs, where each ESSID can be tied to its own security parameters and VLAN tag. For example, an enterprise AP can advertise a "guest" ESSID that requires no security and uses VLAN tag #1 to funnel traffic to the Internet. It can simultaneously offer an "employee" ESSID that requires WPA or WPA2 and uses VLAN tag#2 to let 802.1X-authenticated users reach destinations inside the company network.

From a performance standpoint, business-class APs offer more than just dual radios. Home APs may have a few configurable radio options like transmit power, data rate, and RTS / fragmentation threshold. Enterprise APs provide more extensive power controls that allow for high-density, perhaps even self-healing, WLANs. Their radios may have better receive sensitivity and range. They may provide hardware support for data encryption, increasing throughput when security is enabled. And a growing number of enterprise APs support Wi-Fi Multi-Media (WMM) which allows traffic to be prioritized for Quality of Service (QoS).

Finally, there's a reason that enterprise APs LOOK different than home APs. Most residential APs are table-top devices with plastic enclosures and external AC power supplies, designed for in-home use. Business-grade APs come in various form factors, like thin-profile enclosures designed for locked mounting on walls or ceiling tiles, and rugged enclosures designed for industrial or outdoor use. Many business-grade APs also support Power over Ethernet, so that AC outlets are not required near the AP's mount point.

This difference can be pretty clear-cut for large businesses, but many small businesses do use residential APs. If you have a small office with a single workgroup, in a network managed by one administrator, a residential AP may prove sufficient. But SMBs that need multiple APs to provide coverage for more than a few users, or in multiple workgroups, should take a hard look at the "small business" solutions that use enterprise-class APs (e.g., Cisco Aironet 1130AG, Trapeze MXR-2, Symbol WS2000.)

This was last published in March 2006

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