Your Next WAP: Hold the Cheese?

Q:What’s the difference between an enterprise wireless access point from a big name vendor, and a SOHO grade one from the likes of Belkin, Buffalo or Netgear?

A: About 500 bucks

OK, say it’s not a very funny joke. In fact it’s not really a joke at all – more of an economic observation. But like most jokes, there is a point to it: When you go shopping for wireless access points, do you really need to spend five times as much on an enterprise product which does the same base function – providing wireless network access – as a SOHO one?

Pose this question to anyone who has bought an enterprise access point – or an entire enterprise grade wireless system – and we’ll bet you it’s only a matter of seconds before you hear words like “better security”, “centralized management”, and “rogue access point detection.”

These are all features which you are likely to see in enterprise access points, and which are used by many vendors to justify the fact that the access points they are selling are five times the price of the access points you can pick up in Staples or Office Depot.

But the big question is, do you really need so-called enterprise grade APs for $600 or so, when you can purchase a Belkin or a Netgear one – like you may have at home – for about $100?
One feature that many enterprise APs offer is rogue access point detection. From a security standpoint this is clearly a desirable feature – after all, anyone can pick up an AP for $100 and set it up in their office without any security precautions – but how vital is it? The truth is that every network administrator can (and probably does) install a utility like [NetStumbler]( on their laptop and walk around the building seeing what APs are up and running. Sure it’s convenient to have the capability built into each AP, but is it worth $500 a pop?
What about centralized management – the ability to manage and configure all APs simultaneously from a central console, and upgrade firmware in all units at a single stroke? Popular wisdom says that once you get beyond an arbitrary number – say 10 APs – you need centralized management. Oh yeah? So if you have 20 APs, it’s worth spending an extra 10,000 bucks just so the network admin doesn’t have to log on to each AP and configure it individually? Tell that to the CFO.

Let’s look at security. Clearly, security is very important – so important, in fact, that SOHO APs offer many security features, including WPA encryption, MAC address filtering and so on. Enterprise APs have this and more, but is it really necessary?

The answer is that it depends. Large enterprises usually have security policies which may include powerful encryption and advanced authentication systems, and these have to be applied to anyone joining the network, regardless of how they join. The chances are that these security measures can only be applied using the enhanced features of an enterprise AP. But what about smaller organizations, or ones which have fewer people requiring wireless access? Isn’t the security that SOHO APs offer enough?

Without suggesting that good security is anything but critical, Greg Collins, senior director of wireless LAN research at California-based research house Dell’Oro Group believes that in many cases it is. “Probably for companies with 30 or 40 people requiring wireless access the security that these devices offer is sufficient,” he says.

There are other features that enterprise APs offer – for example multiple SSIDs (define), providing the ability for a single AP to support multiple virtual WLANs, and Power over Ethernet (PoE) (define), providing better reliability (the cleaner can’t unplug it when doing the vacuuming) and flexibility in terms of the precise location that it is implemented.

But for many companies, the single biggest attraction of enterprise APs, despite their higher price, is the enhanced security they provide. And it is this that these companies are paying top dollar for. Are they being ripped off? “Enterprise products and SOHO products use the same radios, etc. Should there be a $500 price differential between these types of products? Probably not,” says Collins.

When a price differential looks difficult to justify, things normally change. The best guess is that new, cheaper products will soon come onto the market, providing the enhanced security that most companies would like but which at the moment you need an enterprise AP to obtain. The manufacturers of these new products will probably keep the costs down by cutting out less important features of enterprise products like multiple SSIDs and PoE which many businesses can do without – certainly if it saves them thousands of dollars.

And who will be the vendors to supply them? “I think Buffalo, D-Link, Netgear and others will look to expand into the non-consumer market with products at the $200 price point,” says Collins. Consumer AP vendor Belkin is also looking at moving up market. “We do well in the home space, and we are seriously looking at the business space as well,” says Jonathan Bettino, product manager at Belkin.

The truth is that while most SOHO APs are very fine pieces of hardware with many of the same specs as more expensive enterprise APs, many network admins are reluctant to buy them for security reasons – and quite rightly so. There appears to be a big middle ground of companies which don’t need all the features of enterprise APs but which need more security than SOHO APs provide. Many CFOs will be hoping mid-market products arrive on the shelves as soon as possible.

Paul Rubens
Paul Rubens
Paul Rubens is a technology journalist specializing in enterprise networking, security, storage, and virtualization. He has worked for international publications including The Financial Times, BBC, and The Economist, and is now based near Oxford, U.K. When not writing about technology Paul can usually be found playing or restoring pinball machines.

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