Wireless Access Points: How Much Should You Pay?

By Paul Rubens | Posted October 20, 2005

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?

About 500 bucks

Okay, 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 that you're likely to see in enterprise access points, and many vendors use them to justify the fact that the access points cost so much more that the ones you can pick up in Staples or Office Depot.

But the big question is, do you really need to pay $600 for so-called enterprise-grade APs when you can spend about $100 at Belkin or Netgear?

Many enterprise APs come with rogue access point detection, which is a desirable feature from a security standpoint. 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 his or her 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 then 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.

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.

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 these 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. 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 that 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. "The security that these devices offer is sufficient for companies with probably 30 or 40 people requiring wireless access," he says.

Enterprise APs offer other features — for example multiple SSIDs, which lets a single AP support multiple virtual WLANs and (Power over Ethernet) (PoE), which provides better reliability (the maintenance crew can't unplug it while vacuuming) and flexibility in terms of where you install it.

But for many companies, the single-biggest attraction of enterprise APs, despite their higher price, is the enhanced security they provide. And they pay top dollar for it. 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 to have. The manufacturers of these new products will probably keep the costs down by cutting out less import features 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 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 companies are reluctant to buy them for security reasons — and quite rightly so. There appears to be a big middle ground of companies that don't need all the features of enterprise APs but need more security than SOHO APs provide.

Adapted from enterprisenetworkingplanet.com.

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