The inherent flexibility of wireless mesh networks made them at first popular in military applications, since each soldier's radio could be used as a node that strengthened and extended a wireless web of connectivity. Municipal deployments followed -- the city-wide "clouds" of coverage that most of us associate with mesh networks -- and continue to serve a growing number of purposes.
In one Los Angeles neighborhood, for example, police officers now access streaming video feeds from security cameras via a Motorola-designed mesh network, resulting in a 40% drop in crime. The Chicago Transit Authority deployed a mesh network from Tropos Networks to help it manage 10 rail yards. And the city of Calabasas, Calif., is using a mesh network from Strix Systems in conjunction with a digital parking meter system from Digital Payment Technologies (DPT). The solution reduces lost revenue from broken meters and can accept payment through wired and wireless connectivity. By combining it with wireless mesh, the initial and long-term costs of the DPT deployment are reduced.
Enterprises are now also exploring this alternative to wired connectivity. In general, the goal is to solve one of two needs:
- An ad-hoc architecture, such as the military example, in which a mobile network expands and shrinks as users attach to it or disperse; or,
- A fixed-network infrastructure, such as the routers attached to streetlamps in many municipal deployments.
Either way, the benefits of mesh include greater flexibility for creative deployments or tricky-to-access locations, long-term cost savings, improved system robustness and opportunities for easy expansion.
When outfitting an enterprise from scratch, mesh offers significantly lower cost of entry than a wired network. In a building intended for 5,000 users, says Manish Rai, Senior Director of Product Marketing for Motorola's Enterprise Mobility Business, "We did an analysis and found that by going completely wireless you can have an 80% to 90% cost savings, versus deploying a completely wired network."
Another big enticement is the "self-healing" nature of mesh networks. The nodes, or access points, in a mesh network can be thought of like knots in a fishing net or patches on a quilt: each one strengthens the whole, but should one break, the whole still remains intact. So, unlike wired networks, in which an interruption can force a collapse of the entire network, the signal in a mesh network simply reroutes around a broken node with no disruption to connectivity.
Additional benefits, suggests Ihab Tarazi, VP of Global Network Planning for Verizon Business, are that "mesh networks provide customers with diversity, major improvements in reliability and lower latency."
Questions To Ask
There are no lack of options in the mesh network arena, and solutions providers include Meru Networks, Motorola, Cisco, Siemens, Verizon Business, Strix Systems, Tropos, Intel, BelAir Networks, Northrop Grumman and Aruba Networks, to name a few. As you shop around for the right solution, you'll do well to consider the following points:
> The experience of the vendor. Chip Yager, Motorola's Director of Operations, believes that experience with outdoor deployments doesn't always translate to indoor experience. "The idea that you can take a vendor that's good at indoor and assume that they can deploy an outdoor network, with all the different variables that come into play and are out of your control, is an assumption I wouldn't want to risk my business on." Yager also stresses the importance of working with a vendor that can ensure its partners are equally well trained.
> Will the mesh network act as an extension of what's already in place? Aruba Networks' VP Marketing, Michael Tennefoss, advises considering: "Can mesh be managed from a single console using the same wireless management platform that manages the rest of the WLAN? Does mesh offer the same, or higher, security as the rest of the network, or will mesh introduce new variables? And lastly, does mesh increase operating expenses by requiring a completely different set of SKUs to stock, with the logistics and support programs that entails -- or does it leverage existing inventory for expansion and spare parts?"
> The true total cost of ownership. Make sure the "optional" add-ons don't include such necessities as security options. If a starting price seems too good to be true, read the fine print.
> The network's resiliency. If your needs include video and voice, make sure the vendor can offer a high-enough quality of service. (A slow-loading video from a traffic camera doesn't help those firefighters at all.)
> Security. Wired or unwired, a company's true security vulnerabilities are its server security and end-user security, says Craig Settles, President of Successful.com and an expert on mesh deployments. "The end-user represents a high vulnerability point," says Settles, a member of the Mobile Enterprise Editorial Advisory Board. "It can be a pain for management, but security breeches here are preventable. So when you're shopping around, ask if you can get the sign-on and security procedures enabled through software scripts, so the user just clicks two buttons and it's done. It'll save I.T. a ton of misery."
Trends Driving Mesh Network Adoption In The Enterprise
Enterprises have an increasing need for video feed, which mesh supports. "Clearly, it's important for enterprises to see what's going on, whether it's for security, control or safety purposes," says Chip Yager, Motorola's Director of Operations. "There's a lot of value to that, and a lot of these applications don't economically support cabling."
Flexible Power Options
There's a growing demand for flexible methods for powering mesh networks. "Especially in outdoor deployments -- if you're not offering 12VDC, solar power, rechargeable battery, 90-277VAC and power-over-Ethernet 802.3af options, then you're bucking the trend," says Michael Tennefoss,
VP Marketing at Aruba Networks.
Non-GPS Location Tracking
Vendors such as Motorola offer a proprietary location solution, but mesh networks can also work in conjunction with RFID tags to help locate property, such as equipment in a large yard. For example, healthcare organizations are notorious for using only 30% to 40% of available equipment (an item that can't be found is often quickly replaced, at an added expense). Tracking technologies have helped increase inventory usage rates to 70% or 80%. Time is also saved when staff can quickly locate assets, instead of tracking it down.
Investing Entirely in Wireless
"One difference we're beginning to see with 802.11n is 300 Mbps," says Mannish Rai, Senior Director of Product Marketing for Motorola's Enterprise Mobility Business. "For the first time we have a technology that can deliver better performance than traditional wired networks [which deliver around] 100 Mbps." More people are considering making all their future connectivity investments wireless, and "are interested in going completely wireless."