ZyXEL NXC-8160 review

£1800
Price when reviewed

ZyXEL’s latest wireless appliance aims to do away with the need to plan cell placement for client roaming. The NXC-8160 Wireless Channel Blanket Controller is the result of an agreement with Extricom and, as its full moniker implies, takes a blanket approach, where all APs use the same wireless channel and clients can roam freely from one to another.

ZyXEL NXC-8160 review

The NXC-8160 provides eight 802.3af PoE-enabled ports that work in tandem with ZyXEL’s NWA-8500 access points. These have no web-management interface and take their configuration directly from the appliance. Last month, we looked at Netgear’s ProSafe Wireless Smart Switch (web ID: 145314), which also offers roaming capabilities but can operate with more AP models. The ZyXEL system currently only supports the NWA-8500 APs, but these do support 802.11abg. Unlike Netgear’s product, ZyXEL doesn’t provide the facilities to discover, identify and contain rogue APs. The primary functions of this ZyXEL partnership are to provide swift deployment of wireless services in areas deemed too difficult for traditional solutions and seamless roaming.

Installation is a simple affair and the appliance’s homepage opens with a status screen showing the active PoE ports and those that have APs attached, along with the status of the two wireless radios. Up to six appliances can be managed from a single interface, where you designate one as master and all others take their configurations from here. You decide how each radio in all the APs behaves by choosing 802.11a, b, g or mixed bg operations, the channel to use, which data rates will be supported and whether rate adaptation will be used. The appliance supports multiple SSIDs, where each one contains information such as SSID broadcasting or masking, whether wireless clients on the same SSID or different ones are allowed to communicate with each other, and an encryption scheme. For the latter, there’s WEP, plus WPA/WPA2. RADIUS servers can be used for authentication, too.

For testing, we introduced the ZyXEL appliance and APs to our test network, with a Windows Server 2003 R2 domain controller providing gateway, DHCP and DNS services. We installed an AP in our //Labs and positioned a second around 50m away in another office. We connected to the test network with our wireless notebook over WPA-PSK and set up a continuous ping with our domain controller. We then went for a stroll through the building and watched signal strength drop to about 25%, after which we were passed on to the second AP. Initially, the ping did time out a couple of times, but on subsequent walkabouts it mainly continued unabated without any dropouts, and the client was unaware that it had been moved to another AP. Monitoring functions are severely limited, although, using the Syslog service, we could see how many clients had associated with the APs and what their MAC addresses were.

The ZyXEL partnership worked well during testing and our only main issue is pricing. Considering the idea is to have a high density of APs to provide blanket coverage, it would make sense for them to be better value. However, if your pockets are deep enough, you’ll find the NXC-8160 does offer very easy installation and excellent client-roaming capabilities.

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