As most readers will know by now, NetGear has a habit of producing network kit that tries to mimic the functionality of high-end devices but with an entry-level price tag.

A few weeks ago at the ceremony for the 2007 Techworld awards , I got chatting to the UK MD of NetGear, and said to him that it was about time they did this in the wireless switch market. “Oh, like the one I’ve got in my lab at the moment?” he said. “Would you like me to send you one when it’s ready?”

The WFS709TP was in fact launched in May.

Before we look at the unit itself, let’s have a quick précis of the difference between a wireless switch and a traditional network with multiple access points (APs). With normal (“fat”) APs, you configure each AP individually with its own SSID (network identifier), encryption keys, and so on. When a mobile device moves out of range of one AP and into range for another one, it disconnects from the wireless LAN (WLAN) on the first and then reconnects on the second – which means connections drop and perhaps even the mobile device’s IP address changes. With a wireless switch you have “thin” APs which merely handle the wireless communication side of things. The network information (identifiers, keys, etc) is configured into the switch, which means you only configure it once per network, not once per AP. Just as important is the fact that the switch figures out when a device is moving out of range of one AP and into range of another, and provides a seamless handover so the client doesn’t even notice.

On to the actual kit, then. The WFS709TP is a 1U rack-mountable unit with a PC-type main board and an OS that boots from a permanently installed CompactFlash module. NetGear was a bit cagey about whether the internal software is home-built or re-badged from one of the other wireless-oriented vendors on the market – but a quick squint at the first few bytes of the firmware with a Hex editor (or, for that matter, a copy of Notepad!) demonstrates that it’s an OEM deal with Aruba - and one we might have predicted, since we knew that Aruba and Netgear had already got firmware to have Netgear APs managed by Aruba switches.

On the back of the unit is the standard power socket (though no switch – I’d prefer to have an on-board power switch than simply powering up/down by plugging and unplugging the mains). On the front is an RJ-45 serial port (an RJ45 cable and an RJ45-to-COM-port adaptor are supplied) along with eight PoE-supplying Ethernet ports (for hooking up APs) and a Gigabit Ethernet uplink for connecting the whole shebang to the rest of the network.

As far as the APs go, there are two “thin APs” in the range: the WAGL102 (supporting the 802.11a/g standards) and the WGL102 (802.11g only). Rather sneakily, NetGear’s “fat” APs, the WAG102 and WG102, can be flashed in order to make them into their “thin” equivalents – though beware, this is a one-way street and once you’ve changed them, you can’t re-flash them back to “fat” ones.

To get up and running, you’ll first need to configure the switch, since the APs need the switch to be ready in order to boot. Management of the WFS is via a browser-based GUI which is a tad sluggish but perfectly usable. When you first log in you’re walked through a wizard with the usual “tell me my address” type questions, and after a “Save and reboot” you log in again to be presented with a summary screen telling you about performance and the basic network status; obviously at first boot this is pretty bare, but once you get up and running it’s a handy guide to what’s happening on the network.

Click on the Configuration section and you’re into the screen that lets you define the various WLANs you want to have in your world. You’ll choose an SSID for each, tell it what radios (a/b/g, depending what your APs can do) you want to enable, and the required security information (for network authentication you can choose between 802.1x/WEP and various WPA flavours, and for encryption you’re given appropriate choices between none, WEP, TKIP and AES depending on what you chose for the network authentication protocol). You can enter any shared keys and/or point the device at an authentication server, and then you’ll tell it which VLAN that wireless network will live in. It’s all very simple to do.

Once you have a basic configuration you can turn your attention to the APs, but not until you’ve sorted out DHCP. In order for the APs to boot they’ll need to get their addresses from a DHCP server; if you have one on your LAN then that’s peachy, but if not the WFS has one you can turn on. This said, the in-built DHCP server is rather idiotic in that when defining the address pool you have to give a network address and a subnet mask when creating an address range – which is a pain in the bum if, like most SMEs, you actually just want to pick a small address range that fits a gap in your current LAN allocations, and which doesn’t necessarily fit a network/netmask definition. It wasn’t a problem for us, though – we just used the DHCP server already running on the LAN. Incidentally, the APs we used were both WG102s flashed to become their “thin” equivalents, and both were connected using the switch’s PoE capability, with no need for a power brick.

Once the APs are able to get an IP address the switch soon spots them and you’re able to configure them, give them IDs, and so on. It was also very quick, when scanning for APs, to spot the WPA-enabled AP at the vicarage on the other side of our back wall and warn us of potential interference. Once you’ve identified the APs and given them unique identifiers, that’s it – and sure enough, our test laptop soon connected to the new SSID we’d created on the switch.

Once up and running, you have a range of monitoring screens for APs, switches, clients and the like. There’s also a shedload of extra configuration in the “Advanced” section of the configuration pages (you only need the “Basic” section to get up and running); the advanced stuff ranges from setting an NTP server or turning on Spanning Tree right through to fine-tuning the performance of the radios, enabling/disabling individual data rates and detecting and flagging rogue clients you want to blacklist. There’s also a modest set of diagnostic tools (ping, traceroute, authentication server tests and some AP diagnostics), plus the usual management tools (reboot, settings backup, firmware upgrade, etc), some physical layout planning and a comprehensive set of reports.

The WFS709TP is a very nice piece of kit. Do we care that the software is imported from Aruba? Not in the least – if it works and the price is right, we don’t give a stuff who made it so long as it’s largely stable and any issues that arise are fixed in a timely manner. In fact, rather unusually for a review, we’re actually going to be installing this unit in a real-world travel company that’s grown quickly and has recently moved into an office that can no longer be served by its existing single “fat” AP – so if there are any interesting gotchas, we’ll report back.

OUR VERDICT

This switch is well priced, easy to use without referring to the manual (something of an achievement for a relatively complex WLAN product) and, so far, it’s worked flawlessly. All the "cons" we could think of are trivial - so this switch is well worth a look.