Meraki: mesh wifi for the rest of us

Posted by Harper as General at 03:34 PM

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At skinnyCorp I have been trying to find a really solid wifi access point provider for awhile. Our needs are not that complicated – however we needed something that works.

Originally we were using wifi to augment our wired network – before our cable pulling was completed. We used multiple Linksys WRT54G access points running DDWRT firmware using WDS. They allowed our network to spread out to the warehouse and more importantly acted as a wireless bridge in the meantime of our network build out.

If you didn’t know, WDS blows.  It is too hard to get working nicely. The quality and speed of the wifi degrades with the number of APs in the WDS “cluster.” So the more APs I added, the worse the solution became. Another issue was how flaky the WDS was with security – so we had to run our wifi network unprotected. It was fun for a couple weeks – but it gave me nightmares about some malicious people screwing up our shipping stations. And the people on wifi didn’t have access to our servers and what not.

Eventually it was apparent that we needed a much more robust solution.

So I looked around. A friend of mine hooked me up with an amazing company called Aerohive. They have incredible technology and really neat little APs that would have solved ALL our problems. But they were just a bit more money then we wanted to spend on our wifi network (keep in mind we were coming from a $75/AP solution – so spending any money was quite the increase). So we didn’t execute with them. However, if we were bigger or needed a more robust solution I think we would have gone with them.

Around this time, I had dinner with Chris Dibona and he had mentioned that Meraki was a neat wifi project. We were talking about how to roll out Internet access to a small town and he suggested I check it out. So I did.

It is neat.

We ordered some. They arrived. I plugged them in. Logged into their site. Configured the network through their site. Deployed the APs. Plugged them into our private network. BAM. Less than 30 minutes from opening the boxes to deploying them and running them live. In a mesh. With better coverage than the Linksys APs and with more features.

The Meraki paradigm is kind of hard for some people to swallow. It is basically a hardware AP bundled with a web service that configures the AP. You can have one or hundreds of access points. The network that is created is completely managed and visualized with the Meraki web service. The network can be created from APs that are geographically disparate or very near. The network supports multiple gateway APs and not all APs need to be physically plugged into the network to spread the wifi network. So you can deploy 10 APs and plug 2 into your network and get VERY good coverage of the area. And if there is a dead spot, you just get another AP and drop it in.

To manage all this, you use their control panel web service.  Its officially called the Meraki dashboard and is the crowning achievement of this system. It is a very slick webapp interface to all the nuts and bolts of your wifi network. You are able to do anything from the comfort of your browser. You do not need to be near the network to configure the network. Basically, you can deploy the APs, hook them to the Internet, and config from wherever.

The dashboard has all sorts of functionality you wished your current wifi network(or wired network) had.  It will show you network usage. Track users who are using your network. It allows you to alias and add notes to users based on your MAC address. You can block or whitelist a user. You can create a captive portal and then charge people to use your network. You can do amazing things.

The dashboard is very impressive. Sadly, it is also quite the deal breaker for most of the people I mention Meraki to. Basically, to do anything with the Meraki APs, you must log into the Meraki dashboard and do it through there. There is no way to locally config the APs. The dashboard is located at the Meraki webpage. So your APs are calling home and pretty much reporting usage and other info back to Meraki. This is the only problem that I can find with the Meraki service thus far. If it were a desktop app, or a local webapp or just something were the APs didn’t have to rely on communication with the Meraki homebase – I think this would be a very competitive with the likes of Aerohive and Cisco – especially for smaller companies like skinnyCorp.

But, I don’t think that Meraki is all that worried about being competitive in that space. They seem to be more interested in creating community networks. Helping communities get online and helping spread the wifi love. It makes me want to start a community wifi network and deploy 1000 APs around our neighborhood.

Here are some screencaps of their dashboard. Pretty sweet.

Your Nodes  Meraki Dashboard Splash Page  Meraki Dashboard Overview  Meraki Dashboard Network Usage  Meraki Dashboard
Network Map View  Meraki Dashboard - detail Network Map View  Meraki Dashboard - 2 Network Map View  Meraki Dashboard Network Analysis  Meraki Dashboard
Configure Basic Settings  Meraki Dashboard Configure Advanced Settings  Meraki Dashboard Add nodes to your network  Meraki Dashboard This is a really great idea
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