August 31, 2009

Our Quest for Awesome Wi-Fi at CIC


ruckusarrayWe on the CIC tech team always have a number of projects under way to make the infrastructure here better.  One of these projects has been a long-term project to identify a best-in-class enterprise-class Wi-Fi solution that can deal with our challenging environment.

Over the years we have tried a number of approaches, but we had found none we were really happy with.  Kendall Square is a dense cluster of technology companies, so there is always a great deal of noise in the part of the spectrum used for Wi-Fi.  One Broadway itself has many companies using Wi-Fi, and they often overlap and compete with each other.  We have an incredibly dense user-base of close to 1000 people working for entrepreneurial companies here, many of whom have multiple Wi-Fi client devices (e.g. laptops, iPhones, Blackberries, etc.).  At the same time, people are beginning to rely much more on Wi-Fi than they had in the past, with some companies dropping wired connections entirely.  Some cell phones, such as the T-Mobile Blackberries our staff use, can now make and receive all their calls over Wi-Fi.  The challenge to us was to provide a consistently positive experience despite all of this.

Earlier this year we decided to make a concerted effort to crack the problem.  Our goal was to deploy an enterprise-class solution with a unified, centralized approach to management that would provide a consistently great experience.  We also decided we would move to a dual-band, higher speed 802.11n Wi-Fi network that would provide higher speed and more capacity.

We undertook a thorough research plan of the available options.  We contacted manufacturers and had them send us gear to try out.  We set up these networks on different floors at CIC, and over a period of weeks measured performance from multiple locations on each floor, three times a day.  In addition, using the industry-standard IxChariot testing software, we ran grueling tests against each of these access points that simulated large numbers of end users hammering each one with simultaneous requests for data.

One humorous occurrence during this process was that one of the well-known enterprise class Wi-Fi manufacturers agreed to send us gear to test, but made us promise not to publish our test results.  Odd, we thought.  Lo and behold… that manufacturer’s gear performed very poorly.  We will honor our commitment and we won’t mention their name in connection with our test results.

ruckusAfter all the testing and analysis, one system stood head and shoulders above the others: the ZoneFlex system from Ruckus Wireless.  I remember in particular one of the graphs comparing the performance of the various systems under heavy load.  The other systems showed a jumble of jagged lines representing drop-outs, while Ruckus sailed smoothly through with none.

Another funny story from this effort was that after we were done, we had come to know some other support people very well, but didn’t have a read on the quality of Ruckus support.  Why?  Because we didn’t have to call them!

We went ahead about a month ago and installed the Ruckus system throughout all of CIC’s spaces.  The difference has been stunning.  Users now get consistently strong signals and smooth throughput.  Wow!   And just in case you are wondering, we have no personal connection to this company and they didn’t ask us to write this.

Shortly after we rolled these systems out, Tom’s Hardware, which is in my view one of the best and most thorough technology review sites, published a very detailed review of three systems: Ruckus, Cisco, and Aruba.  Cisco and Aruba are generally considered the gold standards of enterprise-class Wi-Fi system, and are seen in many large universities and corporations.  Tom’s did an incredibly thorough analysis, and arrived at the same conclusion we did: Ruckus rocks.  They described the Ruckus system as the best Wi-Fi technology they had ever seen by a long shot.  And we’re not talking about just a little bit better.  We’re talking about generally performing 50-100% faster than the others, and being able to sustain solid connections to places that the others couldn’t reach at all.  That review can be found here, and it is fun to read for anyone who enjoys reading this kind of subject:,2390.htm

ruckus-zoneflex7962The underlying technology that makes this possible is a new approach called beam-forming.   Ruckus’ BeamFlex technology consists of a smart, compact antenna array with multiple elements (inside the box at the left, shown in the image at the top of this post), which can be combined in real time to form unique antenna patterns. The advanced BeamFlex system software continually learns the environment with all its hostilities and interference sources, including disruptive RF conditions, numerous communicating devices, network performance issues, and application flows. Then, it selects the optimum antenna pattern for each communicating device in real time (even if the client device is moving, as with a cell phone), while actively avoiding interference and minimizing noise to nearby networks and devices. Unlike omni-directional antennas that radiate signals in all directions, BeamFlex’s antenna array directly transmits energy towards the best path to the receiving device.  The particular model we use, the Ruckus 7962 (shown here), has 19 antennas in its array.  And unlike fixed-positioned directional antennas, BeamFlex dynamically configures its “beam” to provide best coverage and performance per client.

For our tech team, the biggest benefit of our new Wi-Fi system has been a better Wi-Fi experience for CIC clients, with fewer tech-support calls about Wi-Fi.  We hope you enjoy it.

Finally, one suggestion for everyone: if you have a newer laptop, we suggest you set it to connect to the new “CIC-A” network, rather than the regular “CIC” network.  Both run on Ruckus, but the “A” network runs 802.11n over the 5 GHz band, which we have founded to be the fastest and have the least interference.  Also, most hand-held devices only work on the “B” network, so by being on the “A” network you will not compete with those devices for a signal.

Comments (5)
  • Tim Rowe

    A reader asked me about the relative cost of Ruckus vs. Cisco and Ariba. The short answer is that Ruckus is far less expensive. – Tim

    Sep 01 2009 at 9:54 AM
  • Michael Davies

    WiFi’s going to grow rather than diminish in its importance; thanks for doing this:

    Sep 08 2009 at 4:07 PM
  • Ronen Isaac

    Great story! We are supposed to be vendor neutral but in the case of enterprise wifi I have to agree with you. Ruckus has definitely shown to be the most cost effective, effortless and highest performing. Thanks for sharing your experience.

    Sep 25 2009 at 9:12 PM
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