Pros: Central management of Wifi access points; seamless roaming; policy-driven access and security controls; choice of access points
Cons: Can be complex to deploy, with few wizards or other configuration aids
Bottomline: If you want to keep control of your wireless users, this product is hard to beat
Manufacturer: Colubris Networks
Cheap wireless access points may be an acceptable way of supporting Wifi users on a small network, but it’s a far from scalable approach.
As numbers grow you’re likely to encounter performance and roaming issues, and you’ll end up having to manage lots of individual access points.
All of that can be avoided by using the Colubris wireless Multiservice Controller (MSC) which, together with associated Multiservice Access Points (Maps), offers seamless Wifi access and central policy-based control of all your Wifi access and security settings.
Colubris wireless controllers are available to handle hundreds of access points and thousands of users. For our tests, however, we chose the entry-level MSC-5100, designed expressly for small businesses with up to 100 users spread over 10 access points. Likewise there are several different Map products to choose from; Colubris sent us a couple of basic MAP-320 units with 802.11a/b/g wireless capabilities.
The MSC-5100 is easy to install. It comes in a small, rugged metal box with power supplied either by an external adapter or via Power over Ethernet (PoE). A console port is provided for local management, with a pair of Gigabit Ethernet interfaces alongside for Lan and internet connectivity. The MAP-320 is similarly rugged and can be wall or ceiling mounted. It can also use PoE with two ports for network attachment.
A web-based interface is used to configure and manage everything, with the access points discovered automatically and a default policy, referred to as a VSC (Virtual Service Community), configured ready to use. You can either modify the default settings and/or create VSCs of your own, each specifying the rules to be applied when authenticating users, encrypting wireless sessions, determining Quality of Service (QoS) requirements and so on.
For example, you might have one VSC for guest users, restricting them to web browsing, and another for authenticated Lan users, enabling them to connect to file and print servers. VLan mapping is available for secure transport of guest traffic over the Lan, with an internal Radius server for authentication plus support for external Radius and Active Directory services.
Once users have been authenticated the MSC hands all the required processing to the access points which, unlike with other solutions, are fully featured products that can be deployed independently if needed. The impact on Lan bandwidth is therefore much lower, while security is taken care of by encrypted management tunnels between the MSC and the access points it controls.
The Colubris hardware can also be used to implement self-contained wireless hotspots and to link wireless users in places where cabled connectivity isn’t available. Remote links can be simply bridged or mesh networks can be configured, with lots of accompanying deployment guides to cover these and other applications, plus lots of additional documentation.
Initial setup is pretty easy and we had few problems using the Colubris hardware to add wireless networking to our test network to control wireless access by user type. However, as you delve deeper it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the vast array of options provided, with very little in the way of wizards or other aids to help simplify the tasks involved. Indeed, to take full advantage of what’s on offer most small businesses will need to buy from a specialist reseller, able to advise and configure the hardware for them.