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How consumer-grade wireless routers can fit in the business world

Consumer routers are cheaper than their enterprise counterparts. If you only need a few access points, these wireless routers might fit the bill.

On a couple of occasions over my two decades in wireless, I have seen small businesses deploy consumer-grade wireless routers in their network infrastructure. When I asked the administrators about (what I considered to be) their rather surprising selection of equipment, I always got the same answer: Consumer wireless routers are cheap, accessible and get the job done as well as any other access point.

Wireless routers contain an access point. If you shut off the router, then all you have -- or need -- is that access point. And all access points are basically bridges between wireless users and wired Ethernet infrastructure. Consumer routers adhere to the same set of IEEE 802.11 standards and interoperability specifications from the Wi-Fi Alliance, including roaming and security requirements. One of those small businesses even mentioned that the Farpoint Group (where I work), has published results of wireless local area network (WLAN) tests that have often shown these routers offer better performance than sophisticated enterprise-class gear.

Perhaps most importantly, consumer routers are extremely cost-effective. They can be one-third the price of their enterprise counterparts. They're also readily available from local consumer-electronics retailers and on the Web. Some routers now even support cloud-based management. Those, I must say, are pretty compelling arguments for using consumer-grade wireless routers in the enterprise. If a business is small enough that one or two access points will provide the coverage and capacity it needs, then consumer-grade (also called residential-class) WLAN equipment should work just fine.

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Consumer-grade wireless routers have matured to the point of sophistication in recent years, and wireless users won't really know the difference between one access point or another while they're going about their day-to-day tasks. So why should a business make the investment in enterprise-class gear?

Well, there are a few good reasons:

Management features: Management consoles are rapidly becoming the key differentiator in business-class WLAN systems of any form. The visibility, reporting, alerts and alarms are key to productivity as user bases grow.

Configuration options: There are generally many more configuration possibilities in enterprise-class systems, including options for configuring virtual LANs, virtual private networks, identity management, Wi-Fi Protected Access-Enterprise, class of service, quality of service and radio resource management, to name just a few.

Scalability: Deploying multiple access points without a single management console will become frustrating after only two or three access points. Trust me on this: A required change can take way more time than it should. Rip-and-replace might be the only option down the road.

Reliability: Given all of the possible threats to WLAN integrity, having built-in assurance features, such as spectrum analysis and intrusion detection, is more than helpful, especially in shops with limited IT staff.

But could a consumer-grade wireless router be equipped with all of these features that are primarily implemented in software? Could the Web-based console built into these products be enhanced with functionality available in enterprise-class products today? And with cloud-based management consoles, would a smaller business realize big-system convenience at a bargain price with no compromise in operational performance?

The answers to these questions are yes, yes and yes. I expect that residential-class products will continue to emerge as small-business staples in many cases. In fact, I even see a future where businesses will be able to add enterprise features to consumer routers through simple firmware downloads, preserving their investments in residential-class technology even as they scale.

In the meantime, don't worry if you have just a few access points to deploy. And if you want more sophisticated features and management, a number of consumer and enterprise-class vendors today offer cloud-centric products and services at small-system prices.

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