Sometimes the only way to make progress is to leave something behind.
Because today's wireless LANs almost always sit at the edge of the network, enterprise-class Wi-Fi products boast an amazing range of features and performance. Small organizations, however, have historically had fewer choices, sometimes resorting to consumer-grade gear. Enter the Cisco 2500 Series Wireless Controller, which brings large-system features to small and medium-sized school districts, satellite sites and other remote settings.
Designed as scalable systems rather than simply a collection of access points or routers, enterprise-class WLAN hardware can handle mission-critical communications of all forms in the workplace. The key drawback for many small organizations, though, is the high cost of entry, a disadvantage addressed by the Cisco 2500 line.
For this review, a small test configuration was set up consisting of a Cisco 2504 controller, a Cisco Catalyst 3560-CG Power over Ethernet switch, and Cisco Aironet AP1042 and 3600 access points.
An enterprise-class controller such as the 2504 offers a far greater degree of control, monitoring and management than is possible with consumer and most SMB-class WLAN wares. A broad range of the 2504's features were examined for this review, starting with rogue AP detection. The controller was able to automatically detect APs that might be unauthorized — a feature unavailable in lower-end products.
Cisco's CleanAir technology can detect devices with the potential for causing radio frequency interference and can troubleshoot performance problems. The 2504 also supports VideoStream, a Cisco technology that optimizes multicast video by converting multicast to unicast and optimizing radio resource allocation — a great solution to have as video traffic consumes ever more LAN bandwidth. What's more, Management Frame Protection secures otherwise exposed control information in 802.11n packets and significantly enhances system security and integrity.
2Number of Power over
Ethernet ports on the Cisco 2504 Wireless Controller
Smaller IT shops can obtain all the management and operations advantages of enterprise-class WLANs in an inexpensive package. Many IT departments are already familiar with Cisco gear, so the 2504 should fit right in. Extensive online support is included in the product's easy-to-use, browser-based interface.
The 2504 enables an AP to wirelessly connect to other APs, eliminating the need for wired backhaul in environments that are difficult to cable. The controller also supports Cisco's unified communications solutions, which bring telephony and related capabilities to the WLAN.
Finally, IT managers will appreciate the OfficeExtend feature, which brings services and security to APs in remote locations.
The 2504 maxes out at 50 APs and 500 clients. While this is probably sufficient for a small district, it puts a lid on scalability. Licensing costs increase with the number of APs enabled.
As is typical with enterprise gear, initial setup and configuration is performed via a command line interface over a serial-port connection. This can get technical, so some organizations may need outside assistance. Once up and running, the web-based interface is comprehensive and easy to use, though there are many options, so a review of documentation will likely be in order. Cisco's manuals are comprehensive and do a good job of walking users through the various options.
If you're seeking big-system capabilities on a small budget, the Cisco 2504 Wireless Controller is definitely worth a look.