MythBusters WiFi: Xirrus

I’ll be the first to admit that when I see something ‘out of the norm’ I shudder and have a knee-jerk reaction that is not always positive. There is so much success around the tried and true enterprise approach to wireless of using omni directional antennas that when you see someone intentionally deviate from it, it can be jarring to say the least! I’ve had the pleasure to be present at the Xirrus Wireless Field Day sessions for WFD5 and WFD6 and I can honestly say that they did a superb job of taking a contentious topic and addressing it head on. For those that are unfamiliar with the Xirrus product, their unique approach to wireless is to stack multiple Access Point radios into a single housing and use highly directional antennas to create an ‘Umbrella Corporation logo’ of coverage:

Image likely copyrighted by Capcom

(it should be noted that I do not believe that Xirrus is somehow evil, involved in genetic engineering, or otherwise a bad company – the logo is simply an easy way to represent a high degree of directionality from a centralized point)

Adding multiple radios into a single housing is not a unique approach. Most everyone on the market starts with two radios in their Access Points and you can even find a handful of three-radio solutions, but Xirrus takes this approach to the next level by stacking as many as 16 radios into a single Access Point! The challenge that other manufacturers do not need to address is overlap. In a standard two or three-radio approach, you typically operate one radio in 2.4GHz and the other in 5GHz (and for those rare 3rd radio guys, they usually stick that radio in monitor or listen-only mode). Tack some omni directional antennas on those bad boys and you’ve got yourself an AP! Xirrus however, intends to have multiple radios in a single AP operate on in the same frequency. This presents some challenges about the efficiency you can gain from having more than one radio in the same frequency in the same physical package (AP). At WFD5, there was much gnashing of teeth regarding how you accomplish this in one package. I’ll not go over the gory details, the video is posted here. Xirrus came back to WFD6 and brought with them their Director of RF Engineering, Avi Hartenstein and tacked the conversation head on.

My goal was simple with this post. I wanted to prove that directionality does exist in the Xirrus product once and for all. I was able to acquire a 4 radio array and decided that the best approach to visualize this purported phenomenon was to actually survey with an AP in an area with no obstructions (scientific, no?). I took the array, statically assigned one of the radios to a fixed channel, turned its power down to -15dBm (yes, they go *that* low!), and took it outside. The results speak for themselves:

 Umbrella logo likely copyrighted by Capcom

Ladies and gentlemen, you saw it here first (or maybe not) – the myth of the Xirrus wedge is real! You can see near the bottom of the image where the AP was placed (at random orientation). I peeled this wedge view out using Ekahau’s Site Survey application after quite a walk outside in the cold. This directionality is fairly easy to see even with my coarse sampling outside. It should be noted that it will be near impossible to visualize this dramatic of a wedge indoors however due to the prevalence of those pesky attenuators otherwise known as walls and furniture.

I’ve seen my fair share of wireless deployments, I know what I’m comfortable with, I know when I move outside of my comfort zone. An experience I reference often is an educational facility that was using directional patch antennas indoors on 10 ft ceilings pointed at the ground. While this is a startling design, when I dug deeper into their design methodology, I discovered that they surveyed using the exact model of antenna and AP that was deployed, correctly visualized the resultant zone of coverage, and validated that this met their applications need. While not a solution I would lead with, there was no fault with their design methodology or implementation, and the infrastructure operated as designed. When you tackle a Xirrus deployment, I would advocate the same approach: understand your needs (throughput, density, coverage, etc), and design to meet those needs using the gear you will be deploying. Survey what you deploy, deploy what you survey. In the Xirrus world, this presents a few design choices to consider:

1) Orientation of the AP.

The Xirrus array has a compass in it. Use this compass to determine the orientation of your array during the survey and ensure that when it gets deployed that this lines up correctly (use the logo on the housing if you need to).

2) Oversubscription.

You must pay close consideration to the number of uplinks to your array and balance this with your deployment expectations. Oversubscription is nothing new so don’t let this scare you – just be aware that you’re moving your uplinks (and potential bottlenecks) further up the line (closer to the AP). This is going to be particularly important as you consider updating your array to newer technologies such as 802.11ac.

3) Powering the Array

Ensure that you have made concessions for powering the array. This will likely require an external power injector but sourcing them along with the array should not be problematic.

4) Antennas change with the modules.

One of the most insightful things I learned from the WFD sessions are a reinforcement that the antenna is part of the radio module. When you replace that module, you replace the antennas that are a part of that module. This could potentially impact the RF of your deployment and will most assuredly change the visualization of your survey data.

Xirrus uses highly directional antennas in a unique way to extend the reach of a radio. This coupled with a low powered radio gives you a number of excellent design pieces for most any wifi environment or need. Pay close attention to the number of radios that you need, apply some logic and reason to your design (don’t expect 8 of your 16 radios to operate in 2.4GHz for example) and make sure your celling has sufficient mount points. The arrays can be weighty. :)

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8 Responses to MythBusters WiFi: Xirrus

  1. wirednot says:

    Reblogged this on wirednot and commented:
    Great article on Xirrus- well done, Sam.

    • jim warner - Univ Cal Santa Cruz says:

      “The results speak for themselves.” They do not speak to me. Perhaps if I was an Ekahau user, I would know how to interpret the figure that has no caption. But from this perspective, the Emperor has no clothes. I am not questioning the technical conclusion because I don’t understand it. If this is supposed to be an example of good journalism, not so much. This does look like important work — which is why I tried to read it forward and backwards. I’d like to understand it.

      • scwifi says:

        The image with the survey heat map shows the actual coverage from a single radio inside of the Xirrus Array. Since it shows a high degree of directionality (it’s not a circle, it’s a wedge), this was what I was trying to articulate. Thanks for the feedback and sorry for the mis-reply!
        -Sam

      • wirednot says:

        Jim, are you a WLAN worker at any level? That’s the backdrop here, its a blog about wireless networking and not so much a place for journalistic excellence.

  2. Pingback: MythBusters WiFi: Xirrus

  3. jim warner - Univ Cal Santa Cruz says:

    Sam, did your replies get crossed?
    I don’t think you were talking to me.

  4. Pingback: How A Dude Named Avi Scored Big For Xirrus | wirednot

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