Today, HP has launched a couple of new additions to their wireless portfolio. I was able to get a look at them and ask some questions about their performance and capabilities. First, a little history lesson for those not up on HP wireless networking.
Back in the day, when HP Networking was the entity formerly known as Procurve, they had their own product line for wireless, centered around their Wireless Edge Services Module. This little blade plugged into the 54xx and 82xx switches to provide a controller-based wireless solution. The access points used by HP weren’t called “access points” but “radio ports”, more accurately describing their function as dumb antennas that relayed the signal back to a central controller, where the traffic was then switched to the appropriate port or routed for destinations known or unknown. It worked fairly well for what it was, and I had a couple of opportunities to deploy it for some customers. It was 802.11 a/b/g only, so when the newer 802.11n access points started coming along, this solution couldn’t keep up with the users’ faster data access desires.
To rectify this situation, HP announced the purchase of Colubris Networks back in August 2008. Colubris was one of the first manufacturers of 802.11n APs and had some very interesting plans to start offering a controller that allowed wired and wireless users to be integrated into one appliance for traffic selection and processing. Alas, this product never really came out, and so the whole development team was swept up into HP after the purchase. The existing Colubris APs and controllers became the new MSM series access points from HP, and the old Procurve Wireless Edge and Radio Port solution was put out to pasture.
Fast forward about 2.3 years, and you have today’s announcement from HP of their first dual-band a/b/g/n radio sets. These units are designed to compete with Cisco’s 1142 AP, based on the slide deck that I was shown. There are two new APs with internal omnidirectional antennas, the E-MSM430 and the E-MSM460. The 460 is a 3×3:3 AP, which means that it has 3 transmit and 3 receive antennas (3×3), as well as support for 3 data streams (:3). The 430 is 2X3:2, meaning it has 2 transmit antennas and 2 data streams. For a point of reference, the competing Cisco 1142 AP is 2×3:2 as well. Having more spatial streams means that you can really crank up the bandwidth. The 430 has a max bandwidth of 300 Mbps per radio, when the 460 can top out at 450 Mbps per radio. There is also an E-MSM 466 that has 3×3:3 antenna support, but uses a selection of external antennas as opposed to the internal omnis of the other units.
The APs use a standards-based implementation of beamforming, as well as 802.3af PoE standards. They also offer a capability of steering clients to less-used sections of the airspace. Many devices today offer 802.11a as well as 802.11b/g client radios. However, many devices will show a preference for one over the other, and in many consumer cases this preference is for the 2.4 Ghz 802.11b/g spectrum, which by now is full of lots of things, like microwaves, cordless phones, Mi-Fi mobile hotspots , and so on. It’s getting pretty crowded to try and do anything. The 802.11a spectrum, on the other hand, appears to be very open at this point. There are very few devices competing up there, and the amount of non-overlapping channels lends itself well to things like channel bonding to increase throughput. HP’s technology will allow the controller to steer the 802.11a-capable clients to that spectrum and allow the 2.4 space a little breathing room. That could be a lifesaver for certain markets where connectivity in that band range is very critical, like healthcare for instance.
For those of you have cold sweats about the last wireless announcement, have no fears here. The new APs are designed to work with the 7xx-series controllers, so you won’t need to rent any more forklifts. The controllers have the capability to have traffic exit at both the controller end and the AP end, so people who want to access the network printer down the hall won’t have their traffic traversing all the way back to the network core to come back down to the printer. That aspect has me very interested, as I’m beginning to see some throughput concerns with all AP traffic terminated at the controller. There are only so many links you can shove into an Etherchannel/LACP setup.
There is also an update to the HP Mobility Manager software. This Single Pane of Glass (SPoG) software allows you to manage multiple controllers and APs at the same time. You can get a pretty accurate picture of your network quickly and decide how best to implement policy changes. This software will also integrate with Procurve Manager Plus and the HP Intelligent Management Center (formerly of H3C). These capabilities are nice so your NOC people don’t have to keep flipping back and forth between applications to ensure the network is up and running.
I’m glad to see HP joining the dual-radio world with this new set of access points. As pointed out by almost all of the wireless blogs I follow, the 2.4 Ghz space is far too congested now, and with almost all devices being shipped now starting to include 5 Ghz radios as well, it’s very critical that a serious wireless company get involved in both spectrums simultaneously. This new series of APs will allow them to complete directly with Cisco, and if the specs on the 460/466 hold up those two APs should provide higher throughput for connected clients. Coupled with the capability to shunt clients to less-congested airspace, it should make some aspects of wireless troubleshooting much easier on us poor wireless rock stars. The Mobility Manager updates should also prove helpful to those people using the software to control multiple controllers and AP setups.
This offering shows that HP is looking to step up their game and are going to compete with Cisco and most likely Juniper once the dust settles from the Trapeze acquisition. I’m optimistic that these new offerings will compliment HP’s wireless infrastructure and drive innovation in both the hardware and software from the competition. It should be a win-win for everyone that deals with wireless regularly.
If you would like to read the press release on these wireless updates, you can see it HERE. If you’d like to see the speeds and feeds on these new products, check out the HP Wireless Networking landing page HERE.
With HP’s new 3×3:3 APs doing distributed (aka local or direct) forwarding of data, they need to apply both security (encryption, authentication, stateful firewall, VPN, WIPS, etc) and QoS at the AP in order that they not break applications or stifle their performance. With the APs operating on 802.3af power (15.4W), the two radios, the Gigabit Ethernet port, the RAM, and a small CPU would use almost every ounce of available power…leaving practically nothing for implementing security, QoS, airtime fairness, client health, etc within the AP – all of which take a hefty CPU, encryption offload processors, etc. These functions have traditionally been done in the controller, but with distributed forwarding, they must be done in the AP. In fact, with 802.3af, their CPU would have to be minimal, capping throughput and minimizing features that could be implemented in the AP. I know this because we’re amidst building our own 3×3:3 platform.
Did HP elaborate on any limitations of using distributed forwarding or did they just say, “Sure, we can do that.”? Many vendors have this functionality, but it’s extremely limited in its implementation. For example, Ruckus does this, but if you want fast/secure L3 roaming, they have to tunnel everything to the controller. Aruba can do this, but only up to 32 APs and no L3 roaming is available when doing it. Motorola can do this, but only up to 24 APs. Cisco can do this, but only in H-REAP mode (death).
What are your thoughts?
Chief Wi-Fi Architect
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