Apple shop maxes out Airport access points, upgrades to 802.11ac

You just want Wi-Fi connectivity to work. So you plug in an Apple Airport Express access point and then you and your coworkers go to town on your MacBook Pros. You plug in another one. And another one.

Until one day, the setup just doesn't work.

One solution is to turn to a controller-based WLAN architecture, opt for new 802.11ac access points, and set up "wall to wall" office coverage that's consistently reliable and consistently high performing. That's the route taken by Rock Paper Scissors (RPS), a well-known commercial editorial company in Santa Monica, with a second office in New York City. The company does video editing and effects for a wide range of TV and web advertisements and other content. Among their editing work: Korean automaker KIA, which gave its "hamsters" a makeover for the updated KIA Soul 2014. 

RPS has been an Apple "shop" for years, though that term implies a more complex infrastructure than was actually the case. In practice, it means that about 130 full-time employees typically worked with MacBook Pro notebooks, iPhones and some iPads. The heavy-duty editing was, and still is, done via wire: 1- or even 10-gig connections from a desk to the 10-gig corporate backbone. "We can't do visual effects or editing over wireless," says Kevin Bass, RPS' chief engineer, in effect the CTO.

But there was plenty of demand for Wi-Fi connectivity. Editors and production assistants were constantly moving among offices and conference rooms, working together, reviewing progress and meeting with clients. To satisfy this increasing mobile workspace, the company relied on Apple's simple-to-install and manage Airport Express 802.11n access points. The white square boxes are about the size of your hand, plug in quickly, and configure easily via the setup assistant built into iOS or the AirPort Utility in OS X. Scaling was deceptively easy: just plug in another Airport.

"We just added Airports to give our [visiting] clients connectivity and for our production assistants," Bass says. "But we greatly outgrew those." Clients visit often, with their own wireless notebooks and phones to check on editing progress. Production assistants are moving among conference rooms and offices, uploading and downloading files of 100GB to show the latest video progress.

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"As people roamed, some clients were having trouble connecting," Bass recalls. "Usually that meant they were not able to get on, because there were too many clients on one access point or they were just having a horrible time with [low] speeds. Rebooting the access point, and hoping the complaints would stop, was about the only solution we had." Demand and traffic were growing, but Bass, his two-man IT staff in California, and one-man staff in NYC, had very little visibility into what was actually happening on the wireless network, and few tools to optimize performance.

"The wireless LAN just existed with the Airports," he says. "It sort of worked until it just didn't."

RPS had reached a point where mobility, for employees and clients, was no longer just a matter of convenience, but a defining feature of how people today work together. And the ad hoc nature of Apple's Airports wasn't rising to the occasion, as the number of clients, the traffic volume, and the demand for access and collaboration, increased.

Bass began evaluating WLAN vendors in early 2013. He finally settled on Aruba Networks. He liked the fact that Aruba was focused solely on wireless networking. The AirWave management application would provide a whole new level of management data and troubleshooting features for wireless. He also liked the shared experience of Aruba customers participating in the company's "Airheads" community.

ENTER 11AC

Initially, 11ac was not a factor in RPS plans. But Aruba introduced its first 11ac product in May 2013. "I started thinking everyone is going to be doing this over the next six months,'" Bass says. "Then it became an issue for us: we realized that we didn't want to upgrade our radios again [later]. Given the [relatively low] cost differences, it made a ton of sense to go with 11ac now."

Under the right conditions with a client about 20 to 25 feet away and three spatial streams the Aruba AP-220 access point can deliver a maximum data rate of up 1.7Gbps (and, if the client has corresponding Wi-Fi feature from chipmaker Broadcom, up to 1.9Gbps). A new feature called ClientMatch lets the Wi-Fi access point push a Wi-Fi client to an access point with a better signal. And Aruba's AirGroup feature lets Apple services such as AirPlay and AirPrint work across subnets, while limiting unnecessary Apple Bonjour protocol traffic, which can bog down Wi-Fi performance.

The New York office was lit up first, followed by the Santa Monica space in July 2013, with services from DZ Solutions, a L.A.-based systems integrator and consultancy.

With 11ac operating only in the 5-GHz band, with lower propagation than 2.4GHz, RPS needed a "lot more APs, with small coverage areas" to provide both pervasive and high-performing Wi-Fi connections. "We wanted to saturate the air with APs to give the throughput we needed as people roamed the building," Bass says.

Bass hasn't done any in-depth studies of performance, but the lack of complaints from users may be all the evidence needed. Only a handful of the company's Macs have 11ac built-in (Apple offers it on MacBoook Air, MacBook Pro with Retina display, iMac and the new Mac Pro). But a range of early 11ac adopters are reporting that even existing 11n clients are seeing significant performance gains, partly from being placed in the uncluttered 5-GHz band and partly from some proprietary vendor features.

The Aruba infrastructure also added some unexpected benefits in optimizing the behavior of Apple clients. "We're finding that with the Mac clients especially, that differences in the OS version can help or hinder how they roam," says Bass. "With Aruba, we've been able to fine tune the SSID profiles to allow all of them to have the same, good roaming profile. We're able to optimize the bandwidth while roaming cleanly and successfully."

Different OS X versions reacted differently with the WLAN's 802.1X authentication. "One older version was taking 10 to 15 seconds to re-authenticate with the next AP," Bass says. "But our OS X 10.9 clients roam in less than five. That's a big deal because if it slowed enough to drop the connection you'd have to start over. Now, we're caching their credentials, so they don't have to do a full re-authentication, and it's now less than five seconds for all our Macs."

Finally, the Aruba infrastructure has been able to accommodate differing protections from security conscious studios. "We deal with a lot of major studios, and they want to know their content is secure," Bass says. "Some want firewalls between networks and with the Aruba controller's firewall features we've been able to do that. One studio's security auditor asked us to implement some basic MAC address filtering. We were able to do that in just minutes."

John Cox covers wireless networking and mobile computing for Network World.Twitter: http://twitter.com/johnwcoxnwwEmail: john_cox@nww.com

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Tags Wi-FiAppleNetworkingsoulwirelessWireless Managementanti-malwareWLANs / Wi-Fi

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