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Choosing the right
Lightweight and autonomous systems each provide benefits and merit consideration.
Autonomous architecture model
Core layer Backbone devices Backbone devices
ireless local area networks (WLANs) are often implemented as an overlay to the wired LAN. The two distinct WLAN architectures in use are lightweight and autonomous, each having varied impact on the wired network infrastructure. Selection of the right WLAN architecture can be diﬃcult. Regardless of which architecture your choose, consideration should include building a futureproof, integrated wired and wireless network as vital to achieving a high return on investment. While both architectures remain popular today, the trend is shifting to lightweight architectures taking over the WLAN market.
Distribution layer Router Access layer Desktop Ethernet switch Autonomous AP Wireless client Ethernet switch Ethernet switch Desktop Autonomous AP Router
Two hierarchical models
In the face of this changing landscape, An autonomous, or distributed, WLAN architecture does not include a wireless how do you choose your WLAN archi- controller. Wireless access points support switching, security, and advanced tecture? The two main architectures used networking functions. in the WLAN environment diﬀer in the extent that the wireless access point (WAP) has auton- ed hierarchical model that identiﬁes network devices by omy over access, security, and operation. classifying them into one of three layers. Lightweight WAPs, which form part of a centralized The model is straightforward; it identiﬁes the devices WLAN architecture, have limited functionality, with that provide communications to the end user as the acmost of the wireless intelligence residing at a central cess layer, the devices providing internetwork communicontrolling device (i.e., the WLAN controller). cations as the distribution layer, and the core layer as the By contrast, an autonomous architecture uses dis- top layer responsible for transporting data quickly and tributed WAPs that usually do not require a wireless reliable among networks. WAPs provide the ﬁrst comcontroller. munications interface to the end user regardless of the To diﬀerentiate between a lightweight and an auton- architecture deployed, and reside at the edge of the netomous WLAN architecture requires an understanding work, or at the access layer. of the role and hierarchy of devices in a network. For In an autonomous architecture as depicted in the instance, in the network world, there is a widely accept- ﬁgure above, a wireless controller is not required. The autonomous WAPs support all necessary switching, seBOB ELLIOT is product development manager and ELSA MADRIGAL is a research engineer at Panduit Corp. (www.panduit.com). curity, and advanced networking functions necessary to
Reprinted with revisions to format, from the June 2006 edition of CABLING INSTALLATION & MAINTENANCE Copyright 2006 by PennWell Corporation
route wireless traﬃc. tecture saves time versus managing individual WAPs. hardware consists of reduced-functionality WAPs that operate together with a centralized wireless controller. If a change Lightweight must be made across the entire WLAN. via a console port session. The lightweight includes er settings can be managed from a single device. By contrast. they AP AP can supervise and alert the wireless controller if one of their neighbors becomes faulty. WLAN architecture includes wireless Internet Protocol (VoIP). in lightweight WLAN architectures (page 45). Load balancing and self-healing are important in Source: Panduit mission-critical applications. while the autonomous does not. at the distribution or possibly the core layer. migration. Both lightweight and autonomous WAPs need physical protection. structured cabling. Choosing the architecture Ultimately. The controller resides deeper in the LAN. This archia wireless controller. which operate together with a An autonomous WAP usually has no visibility of its WAP centralized wireless controller. and it agement. As a basic rule of thumb. the wireless controller can oﬄoad wireless clients to a neighboring WAP if a single WAP becomes overloaded. There are no Ethernet Lightweight Lightweight deﬁned rules as to how large a deployment must be beswitch AP AP fore it can be considered too large to manage. power from such power-sourcing equipment as Panduit’s DPoE Power Patch Panel. if more than 5 to 10 WAPs are deployed. The only additional component in a lightweight WLAN architecture is the WLAN controller. Because the lightweight WAPs also have Autonomous Lightweight visibility and awareness of the neighboring WAPs. In addition. Switch Switch In addition. access points with reduced functionality. Network management and layout Traditionally. A lightweight architecture could translate into lower operational costs because There are minimal differences in physical infrastructures between lightnetwork policies. it cannot distinguish whether a neighboring WAP is part of the WLAN infrastructure or an illicit rogue WAP. neighbors. such as that provided by a wireless access point enclosure. The diﬀerence between the physical infrastructures of lightweight versus autonomous WLAN architectures (shown above) is minimal. Autonomous WAPs can become diﬃcult switch switch to manage if deployed in large numbers. or with an SNMP command. and so cannot adjust its power levels to perform Distribution layer Wireless controller 0 . a telnet session. optional zone enclosures. autonomous WAPs require individual manLightweight architecture model Core layer Backbone device Backbone device self-healing. Access layer and costs: Ethernet Desktop Ethernet Desktop Network size. and radio-frequency powweight and autonomous WLAN architectures. such as wireless Voice over A lightweight. Lightweight WLANs can be self-healing because the controller commands neighborWLAN controller ing WAPs to adjust their power levels to compensate for a failed counterpart. The WAPs do not function independently of the wireless controller. the choice between an autonomous and a Router Router lightweight WLAN architecture will come after considering such important factors as network size. every autonoAutonomous AP AP mous WAP must be reconﬁgured individually. a Wireless Wireless client lightweight solution can potentially be more cost-eﬀective client Source: Panduit than0606cimwirelessF2 an autonomous architecture. security settings. or centralized. It cannot load balance because it does not have control of its neighboring WAPs. and available switch ports from an Ethernet switch to provide connectivity with the wired LAN. an http Web WLAN physical network layout connection. Any conﬁguration changes can be accomplished reduces human error. Zone Zone Wireless enclosure enclosure A lightweight architecture eases management of large enclosure PoE deployments by permitting control of all WAPs from a power patch panel single device.
asset tracking. As ‘smart’ as you want to be . advanced selfhealing and optimization can be seamlessly optimization can be seamlessly performed with a performed with a lightweight architecture. Migration from an autonomous to a lightweight solution is possible with the addition of the wireless controlArchitecture dictates choice ler and an operating system upgrade to selected WAPs from The type of architecture deployed in a WLAN is a major certain equipment providers. wireless VoIP. the hardware cost of a lightweight WAP between the two WLAN architectures. the total cost of the WLAN must take into account both the solution can be converted into a centralized lightweight capital and operational expenses. Additionally. In a lightweight WLAN. such as Virtual Private weight solution. and the technical diftends to be lower than that of an autonomous WAP. While basic coverage can be obtained with autonomous WAPs. the amount WAPs with network-wide policies from a single controller. The number of size. Furthermore. lightweight architecture. and the desired data rate. it is possible to manage multiple WAPs deployed depends on the number of users. and other intelligent applications are best served by a lightweight WLAN solution because of the centroubleshooting. operational expenses are tonomous solution may be suitable since the investment is associated with each solution. but the ferences that aﬀect management. of data traﬃc. These include time spent conprotected with a migration path with certain equipment ﬁguring network-wide policies. advanced self-healing and a few autonomous WAPs. In an autralized management. tonomous solution. whereas in the lightweight solution age. the cost of operational expenses increasDensely packed WAPs can yield seamless wireless coveres signiﬁcantly per WAP. the WLAN can be designed using autonomous WAPs. an auIn addition to capital expenses. If a small wireless deployment requires only a few and autonomous WLAN architectures may not be possible. If the size of your deployment is fairseparately with an autonomous solution. It is important to understand the diﬀerences Costs. performing maintenance. ly small and the initial hardware cost is a concern. architecture. WAPs. A strict hardware price comparison between lightweight Migration. InAs wireless coverage is expanded with the addition of WAPs. Generally. you should choose a lightadditional bundled security features. the lightweight solution often includes If futureprooﬁng is a concern. considering the feature sets of each will not be identical. stead. consideration. and the overall cost of the wireless controller must be factored into the toreturn on investment. operability. choices. or making additions to the WLAN. tal cost. but often result in a large number of WAPs that are best the operational expenses are minimally aﬀected by network managed with a lightweight WLAN solution.The amount of intelligence desired is a fac. since it can more readily ease management Networks and ﬁrewalls that otherwise would be purchased and improve security.While basic coverage can be obtained with a few tor when choosing a WLAN architecture.
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