How to Deploy Small-Business Wi-Fi With Xclaim Access Points
Created by established Wi-Fi vendor Ruckus Wireless, the new Wi-Fi access points from Xclaim are deployed entirely from a smartphone app.
By Paul Mah
With the BYOD phenomenon now several years old, CIOs and IT managers have become intimately familiar with the necessity and challenge of setting up and maintaining Wi-Fi wireless networks. And as tablets and ultrabooks with no built-in LAN ports increase in popularity, having a smooth-running Wi-Fi network is proving to be more important than ever.
Not surprisingly, the challenge of establishing reliable Wi-Fi networks is most acutely felt by small businesses. Lacking the budget to acquire enterprise-grade equipment, they are often forced to rely on consumer-centric Wi-Fi hardware that is really designed with home users in mind.
On the other hand, even those willing to spend the money find themselves ensnared by the technical complexity of enterprise systems. Indeed, when we reviewed Wi-Fi equipment from Wi-Fi specialist Ruckus Wireless two years ago, we noted that setting it up adequately required good Wi-Fi knowledge, along with a certain level of competency with computer networking.
It appears that Ruckus agrees Wi-Fi is still too difficult for small businesses. With this in mind, the company in November launched a new range of Wi-Fi hardware under a brand called Xclaim, which Ruckus says offers business-class Wi-Fi capabilities, but is designed — and priced — specifically for small businesses.
The Xclaim Wi-Fi Access Point Family
Hearing it from Ruckus, there are two core motivations for small businesses to buy into the new Xclaim family of Wi-Fi access points (AP): its “business-class” Wi-Fi capabilities and reliability, and a simplicity that the company says requires “zero IT knowledge” to set up.
The first assertion is backed by the strong Wi-Fi engineering capabilities in Ruckus: The company says that the Xclaim sports an “advanced RF design,” as well as enterprise-centric features such as airtime fairness and band steering (note, however, that many of these features are not directly configurable on the Xclaim).
As for the boast of requiring no IT knowledge: This is not just marketing fluff. The claim is backed up by a unique smartphone app that Ruckus built from the ground up to allow users with marginal IT skills to easily create and configure multiple Wi-Fi access points. (“Look, Ma, I’ve got an app for that.”)
The free app is available on iOS and Android platforms, and unlike other companies’ half-hearted attempts, it is worth noting that you really do need the app to configure the Wi-Fi access points from Xclaim. As you shall see later, this design decision proves to be the primary strength of the Xclaim Wi-Fi solution — and also a current weakness.
There are four models of Xclaim access points at the moment. There is the entry-level Xi-1 with selectable dual-band 300Mbps 802.11n, the Xi-2 with dual-band 600Mbps 802.11n and the Xi-3 with dual-band 1.167Gbps 802.11ac. The “Xi” family is geared toward indoor usage, while the Xo-1 is the outdoor equivalent of the Xi-3 in a much sturdier chassis that is rated to IP67 guidelines.
The Xi-1, Xi-2 and Xi-3 are priced at $89, $149 and $199 respectively, and the Xi-1 will set you back $299. Overall, the entire Xclaim access point family is fairly expensive when compared to many consumer-level access points on the market today, though it is laughably cheap from the perspective of an enterprise Wi-Fi deployment.
Setting Up the Access Point
The setup process for the Xclaim is radically different from consumer-grade Wi-Fi access points. Users have to first download the free “Harmony” app from the Apple App Store (iOS) or Google Play (Android).
Once the app is downloaded, the smartphone or tablet will have to be connected to the temporary “xclaim-setup” network that is automatically created by every new Xclaim device. Launch the Harmony app, and step through the five pages in the wizard consisting of the following:
Specify (geographical) location: To ensure that the Xclaim conforms to the emission regulations for your locality
Set up an app password: This password is used to govern access to the Harmony app
Create network: Define the SSID and associated security passphrase
Finish: Settings are uploaded; access point reboots
Upon completing the wizard, the access point will shut down the xclaim-setup network and load the newly defined configuration. (To step through the wizard later, first reset the access point to factory mode by holding the “Reset” button for eight seconds when it is powered up.)
By connecting to the newly created Wi-Fi network, the Harmony app can be used to access various network usage statistics, create additional wireless networks and modify additional parameters. Note that the solution does not require the use of a centralized controller.
For example, 2.4GHz and 5GHz networks can be left at “Automatic” for the Xclaim to decide on the best channel to use, or be manually set to a specific channel. It is also possible to create additional SSIDs with different security configurations.
These can then be applied to the access point of your choice, with support for a total of four SSIDs per access point. A business with four or five access points, for example, could opt to create an unsecured “Guest” network, and enable it only for the access point that is physically located in the foyer area.
Thoughts About the Xclaim Solution
The primary appeal of the Xclaim access point is business-grade Wi-Fi, which includes support for multiple wireless networks and the ability to create a Wi-Fi network using multiple access points. On this front, the Xclaim performed these functions as advertised, and does in fact serve as a strong disincentive to deploy an expensive enterprise Wi-Fi solution.
And while we were not set up to test it, Xclaim says that its access point is capable of supporting up to 100 concurrent users. This is significantly better than many consumer-centric access points out there, some of which are known to perform poorly at anything from 20 to 50 simultaneously connected users.
Of course, the Xclaim is geared toward small businesses, and those looking for more advanced capabilities, such as centralized 802.1X authentication support, wireless threat detection and the creation of complex wireless mesh networks, will find the Xclaim to be woefully inadequate.
There are a host of other business-centric features, such as a Kensington lock and various latching mechanisms to hang the device on the wall or ceiling. Importantly, the entire Xclaim product family supports Power over Ethernet (PoE), delivered via the Gigabit Ethernet port. Indeed, the package came with a PoE injector, though there is also a DC input port on the access point.
Some Hiccups and Limitations
As highlighted earlier, despite its substantial promise, the Harmony app does not appear ready for prime time at this point. During our tests, configuration changes sometimes resulted in the app freezing, necessitating a restart. There were also intermittent “There was an error communicating with the AP” messages when attempting to configure the app. Finally, there is a bug that sometimes causes the app to permanently lose its authentication with an access point, necessitating going through the setup again in order to make changes to its configuration.
A spokesperson for Xclaim told us that a new version of the app would be released in January to addresses the bugs. We proceeded with the evaluation due to the product’s novel concept, and because we believe that the current issues with the app can be addressed though future software updates. And make no mistake about it: The Xclaim access points work well and offered very good range once set up properly.
Another limitation we saw has to do with the fact that control of each physical installation appears to reside with the app that was used to set it up — you can’t just install the Harmony app on another smartphone and try to log in. We imagine that this is due to security, since the security token used to manage the Xclaim network is unique and apparently only stored on the device that was used to set it up.
However, it does mean that the only way to make changes to your network in the event of losing your phone would be to perform a factory reset and go through the setup process again. Companies that deploy more than a handful of access points on their premises will find this unacceptably cumbersome, and it is not clear if the app update will address this.
We loved the simplicity that the Xclaim delivered, and the concept is a breath of fresh air in a world of Web-only interfaces filled with complicated and often incomprehensible configuration options.
By chucking away the need for a controller, and adopting a simplistic design, Xclaim has essentially made it possible for small businesses to buy into features that matter most to small businesses, and at a price point just slightly higher than consumer offerings. Small businesses can also opt to grow their network piecemeal, adding in new access points to increase coverage, or for use at a larger site as the company grows.
As it stands, the Harmony app is the linchpin that needs to be done right first. So unless your configuration is a simplistic single access point network, then it may be a good idea to give it a few more weeks for the kinks to be ironed out and a new version of the app to be released.