ZoneFlex is a wireless networking package that comprises a central configuration server (the ZoneDirector) and a collection of ZoneFlex 2942 access points (which have 802.11g radios). It was launched in May 2007 and is marketed under the “dead easy to get up and running” tag. Apart from this system, Ruckus' focus is on consumer gateways for service providers, which have to be easy - but has it succeeded in making an SME WLAN that doesn't need an IT specialist, and does the functionality suffer as a result?

The first job is to set up the ZoneDirector, which is a small grey box with a couple of Ethernet ports that can sit on a shelf or mount in a rack, and which comes in flavours supporting six, 12, 25 and 50 APs. You configure it by pointing a browser at its Web interface or by letting Windows find it on the network using UPnP. There’s a simple wizard to walk through, telling it what language you want to use, what bit of the world you’re in and the details of the first WLAN you want to set up; quite sensibly you also have to choose a new admin password.

Once you’re through the wizard, you land on the Dashboard page of the GUI, which shows you the usual collection of information about system configuration, event history, connected devices and system usage. The Dashboard is customisable, by the way, so you can drag the various features on or off the page to suit your particular preferences.

Once you’ve got the ZoneDirector running you can start to connect the APs. You can configure each AP with an IP address manually, but the easiest way is to let DHCP do it for you. The APs and ZoneDirector discover each other automatically, and you can set the ZoneDirector either to accept new APs into the network by default, or to flag their existence but not let them participate unless you say so. Incidentally, you need only connect one AP to the wired LAN, in order that the ZoneDirector can talk to it; further APs will happily work in a wireless mesh.

Although you choose a wireless network name (ESSID) during setup, this is merely the first WLAN; ZoneFlex can support up to four WLANs at once. For each WLAN you can define the authentication and encryption policies, whether it should show or hide its SSID, and whether to enable Web Authentication. The latter is a mechanism that lets the ZoneDirector refuse to pass packets for a new connection until the user has authenticated via a Web page (which is automatically presented when they try to go to a website). The authentication process can work with a user database that’s internal to the ZoneDirector, or with an AD or RADIUS system.

Also built into the system is “Zero-IT Activation.” This is an attempt to idiotproof the process of setting up client computers by automating the process; you connect a laptop or PC to the wired LAN, point a browser at the ZoneDirector, and enter your user ID and password; it downloads a little executable that configures your wireless adaptor with the correct settings for the chosen connection. You can then disconnect from the wired LAN and start using your wireless world.

All in all, ZoneFlex is an extremely attractive wireless networking family. Although it concentrates on being easy to use, at the expense of giving you the ability to tweak zillions of esoteric settings on the radios, this is a good thing in my mind – and let’s face it, I reckon that only a minority of users ever switch things away from their defaults anyway.

The ZoneDirector isn’t excessively expensive, and although the APs are a bit dearer than standalone APs you get from the likes of Netgear, but are cheap compared with many connected APs. Ruckus keeps the costs and complexity down by eschewing the fashionable 802.11n fast Wi-Fi and sticking with 802.11g - at least for now, the CEO, Selina Lo told us. Meanwhile, these access points include Ruckus' own multiple antenna system (the antennas are internal) which maximise coverage and reliability.

So, does it succeed in its aim of being a simple but effective wireless product? Indeed it does. It has an excellent GUI, you can have up to four SSIDs with different security policies (and attached to different VLANs on your infrastructure network), and if you’re implementing a public hotspot (if you’re a hotelier WLANing your rooms, for instance) the user login and guest access functionality’s there and works a treat. It really is a very cool system.

OUR VERDICT

A very attractive product for an SME that wants an easy way to get up and running wirelessly.