Sunday, October 23, 2011

Open Mesh Routers Are a Fair Alternative

Image showing mesh network layoutImage via WikipediaExample of a Single Point of FailureImage via WikipediaI've been working with Open Mesh routers at a couple of locations. Thus far, they have been reliable and have pretty good range on their own. Allowing the routers to mesh offers some pretty good advantages for small business.

One location where I am using an Open Mesh router has only one router as an access point. We wanted to test it out. I've been meaning to add a second access point for redundancy, though the office is small enough to be covered by the single router. My main motivation is to ensure that wireless coverage stays up should one router fail. That way, I have time to order a replacement while still servicing network clients.

In another location, I have three mesh routers. Two are set up as gateways with a third as a repeater. The two gateways are located in areas where I believe most people will use them, near the offices. The repeater is located in a conference room where it extends coverage outside the building. It also eliminates dead spots and weak signals inside the conference room.

Why Mesh Routers?

Previously, these locations had off the shelf, retail routers, which are OK; but, they tend to get flaky with prolonged use and multiple clients. I recognize that the burden of routing, not wireless, is what makes cheap routers flake out, especially when you involve VPN. However, by going with mesh routers as access points, turning off the radio on the cheap routers, it distributes the "risk" of single device failure.

The advantage is that the wireless mesh radios are not likely to all fail at once. If one fails, it's an inconvenience, but it's not the end of wireless coverage for the location. In addition, the mesh routers handling wireless means that I can choose any number of routers, including good ones that don't do wireless.

There Are Already Devices for That

There are already access points, routers, and repeaters available to eliminate a single point of failure without resorting to mesh routers. One of the disadvantages of mesh routers is the loss of speed due to the overhead of the mesh. I would worry about this if the locations relied on high speed access and low latency. But, the reality is that most small businesses need email, web browsing, and maybe the occasional Youtube video. The biggest limitation is the Internet connection speed, which is well below what the throughput limit is on a mesh access point. 

Small businesses are more cost conscious, which makes it important that I find cost effective ways of meeting their needs without resorting to enterprise class products. The Open Mesh routers handle many of the wireless needs of small businesses easily and affordably. 

Free WiFi is a Cool Add-on

Something else I like about the Open Mesh products is the free WiFi option they provide. They offer two SSIDs, one public and one private. The public one can be throttled so that guests don't hog up company bandwidth. Having open WiFi for guests is a good idea for the following reasons:
  • makes it easy for your clients to connect with information they need to do business with you, or at the very least keeps them busy while waiting;
  • allows vendors, partners, or other co-venture participants to operate on-premises without peeking into your network. 
  • splash page is a perfect marketing opportunity, which can at the very least connect to your Foursquare or Google Places page
  • you can still provide free WiFi with password protection, if needed
  • an alternative connection when the internal network is acting strange
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