- ✓Easy to add to an existing LAN
- ✓Policy-based central management
- ✓Identity-based roaming
- ✓Guest user services
- ✓Choice of access points
- ✓Supports 802.11n
- ✕High level of technical expertise required beyond basic installation
Home wireless is cheap and easy, but large-scale business solutions can be complex and costly to deploy, and many require major changes to the existing infrastructure. Colubris's family of wireless MultiService Controllers (MSCs) address these issues — they are affordable and easy to install, attaching to existing LANs to provide centrally managed Wi-Fi networks that are scalable and secure.
Colubris makes a range of MultiService Controllers that all have similar functionality, but support different numbers of access points (there is no limit to the number of users allowed to connect through them). We tested the MSC-5100, which supports up to ten access points, and sits at the bottom of a range that extends up to the £5,000 MSC-5500, which can manage up to 200 access points.
Colubris has a choice of Managed Access Points (MAPs), with single or dual radios, that support a mix of 802.11a/b/g Wi-Fi, and a recently introduced 802.11n implementation.
Installation & setup
Installation is simple. The MSC is housed in a rugged blue metal box that we were able to rack mount using the brackets supplied. Power is provided either by an external adapter or via Power over Ethernet (PoE) with, on our model, a pair of Gigabit Ethernet interfaces for LAN and internet connectivity. A console port and cable are also available for local management, although most end users will go for the built-in web interface — as we did.
The managed access points are also rugged, and specifically designed to be wall- or ceiling-mounted. Support for PoE is, again, a standard feature on all models, with two ports for network attachment on the single-radio MAP-320 access points we tested (£253 ex. VAT each).
Unlike some managed wireless solutions, the Colubris access points are far from dumb radios. These are fully featured and independent access points that can be deployed on their own. Connected to a MSC, however, they have all the benefits of central, policy-based management. The MSC discovers access points automatically and applies a preconfigured default policy, referred to as a VSC (Virtual Service Community).
The default policy settings are designed to suit a broad range of requirements, although you'll probably want to tweak them and/or create VSCs of your own to suit different user communities. Just about everything you might want to customise can be managed here, including how users are to be authenticated, what parts of the network they can access, how their wireless sessions should be encrypted, and what level of service they get.
VSC settings are managed centrally, with access points able to run one or more policies simultaneously. Because the access points take care of most of the security encryption and other processing locally, they have less impact LAN bandwidth than some alternatives.
A number of support services are available on the controller, including VLAN mapping for secure transport of guest traffic over the LAN and an internal RADIUS server for authentication plus support for external RADIUS and Active Directory services, if preferred. Web-based guest login is another option, and using all these we were quickly able to configure a VSC for guest users, limiting them just to internet browsing — plus another for employees needing also to be connected to local file and print servers.
You can build self-contained wireless hot spots using the Colubris hardware and connect to wireless users in locations where LAN ports aren't available, with remote links either bridged or mesh networks configured. If your users want to move around the network, you will have to buy an optional add-on software pack, that supports reliable identity-based roaming with fast hand-offs between access points.
We found the management interface easy to follow and had few problems using the Colubris hardware to connect Wi-Fi users to our test network. We were also impressed by the accompanying documentation, which includes detailed deployment guides showing how to configure the product to support different applications. However, as you delve deeper into the vast array of options on offer, a high level of technical expertise is assumed. Users will need to factor in time for testing and training, and smaller companies without dedicated IT resources of their own will also need specialist support and installation services.