Install a small Wi-Fi network with a router and an access point or two and you have an easy choice of products. Install a large Wi-Fi network with several routers and dozens of APs scattered around, and you have a more expensive set of product options, including management-specific appliances. But what about the middle ground, where a router and a dozen or so APs don't warrant a management appliance? Just resign yourself to managing each AP on its own? No, check into the Linksys Max-Stream family, nicknamed Next-Gen AC, and get a complete suite of business tools at little more than consumer prices.
Our test suite of Linksys products included the Linksys EA9500 Max-Stream AC5400 MU-MIMO Gigabit Router. The router isn't part of the AP cluster management, so an existing router with similar features will work. To that we added one Linksys LAPAC2600 Business Pro Series Wireless-AC Dual-Band MU-MIMO Access Point, three Linksys LAPAC1750 Business AC1750 Dual-Band Access Points, one Linksys RE7000 Max-Stream AC1900+ Wi-Fi Range Extender, and one Linksys WUSB6100M Max-Stream AC600 Wi-Fi Micro USB Adapter. Yes, that's a lot of blue Linksys boxes, but we finished with a business-class wireless system, not just some parts plugged together.
Configuration Over and Over and Over
Skipping the router (reviewed here), let's look at the LAPAC2600, a MU-MIMO (Multi-User Multiple-Input Multiple-Output) access point with two radios to cover both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequencies and all 802.11 protocols (a/b/g/ac/n). We used this as the cluster controller for a batch of LAPAC1750 access points. The 2600 has two Ethernet ports (one regular and one Power over Ethernet) while the 1750s have only one PoE port. It has 4x4 internal antennas for higher throughput than the 1750s as well. But their software looks and acts much the same, as do the units themselves.
Both connect to the attached router for IP address details or come up with an address of 192.168.1.252 for easy connection via a browser for setup. The Quick Start initial setup wizard steps through setting the admin password, changing the default serial-number based name to something more memorable, and setting time details.
And here we find the first cluster-enabled advantage: the SSID and wireless security details you provide the 2600 as the “master” in your AP tree will flow down to subsequent “slave” access points as they connect to the cluster.
Under Configuration > Cluster, the Settings and Status page includes two important settings: Member Type and Cluster Name. We set the 2600 as the Master, then changed the default Cluster Name to Cpro-cluster. When we got to this page on the 1750s, we made one the Backup Master, the rest Slaves, and set the cluster name.
SSIDs and passwords from the 2600 passed down correctly to the 1750s when configured. In this case, we set the SSID as CPRO-24G using WPA2-Personal security and set the shared key. This summary page shows the correct settings on one of the 1750s. Each one in the cluster grabs the same settings. You can configure eight different SSIDs for each frequency, each with its own security code. And you can set up a custom portal screen like hotels use.
Once configured, you can see the details for the three 1750s listed in the Configuration > Cluster > Channel Management screen of any of the 1750s. The 2600 shows only its own radios.
The Linksys AC5400 router has a nice Network Map utility to show connected devices. This screen shows the 2600 (Cluster-Mgr) and 1750s (Cluster-1,2, and 3) as well as clients like HP-LAPTOP and Android phones and tablets. You can also see the RE7000 Wi-Fi Range Extender icons.
A typical wall-wart range extender, the RE7000 also includes MU-MIMO support as is part of the “Next Gen AC” family from Linksys. We set this up via WPS (Wi-Fi Protected Setup) and through the admin browser window, and it was a snap both ways. While not part of the official cluster, the WLAN Statistics screen shows it's connected to one of the access points on both 2.4GHz and 5GHz.
The last and smallest member of the family is the WUSB6100M AC600 Wi-Fi Micro USB Adapter. This holds the record as the smallest yet most powerful USB Wi-Fi add-on we've seen. With this installed in our test laptop, we got five bars of signal strength within the house. Through walls? Five bars. Outside? Five bars. Across the street? Five bars.
Not sure if they USB device is the key piece, but it helps. We got more distance with the AC600 USB adapter than with our laptop's internal antennas. It's not part of the cluster, but it is part of the family.
As mentioned above, signals strength from the various AP devices was incredible. Each AP easily handled all the throughput we could drive through it. More manageable than a thrown-together system and far less expensive than buying a Wireless Management Appliance, Linksys' Next-Gen AC family is a nice set of tools for growing companies looking for outstanding Wi-Fi connections over long distances and intelligent management.
All units available now.