Ruckus launches its first small business router: Could this be Google’s new Wi-Fi hardware?

Ruckus Wireless may be known for building big outdoor hotspot systems and installing Wi-Fi networks covering office buildings and hotels, but on Wednesday it’s officially making its move into the small business market. And probably not coincidentally, Ruckus is launching its small business products as Google preps its own business Wi-Fi services that use — you guessed it — Ruckus gear.

Today [company]Ruckus[/company] unveiled a new line of Wi-Fi access points targeted at workspaces with less than 100 employees. Unlike other business networks that require controllers on site or in cloud, Ruckus’s can be set up and managed from a smartphone app.

Ruckus is calling its new line of access points Xclaim, and it’s targeting that nether region between consumer Wi-Fi and full-bore business wireless networks that has long been neglected by networking companies, Ruckus VP and Xclaim general manager Rob Mustarde told me in a recent visit to Gigaom’s offices.

The Xclaim Xi-1 802.11n access point will retail for $89, but more powerful access points will range upwards to $399 (source: Ruckus Wireless)

The Xclaim Xi-1 802.11n access point will retail for $89, but more powerful access points will range upward to $399.

Typically small businesses have had to rely on consumer routers they buy off the shelves at a big box retailer and configure not much differently than you would a home Wi-Fi network. Meanwhile, enterprises are investing not just in access points but expensive controllers, software and IT staff to manage and secure networks with hundreds of nodes.

All of the big networking vendors like [company]Cisco Systems[/company] (through its acquisition of Meraki) and [company]Aruba Networks[/company] and new startups like Aerohive are now targeting the small-medium business (SMB) with new cloud-based Wi-Fi networking systems. But there is a big difference between a small business and medium business, and according to Mustarde, there are few options out there for an office network of 10 access points or less.

But Mustarde said Ruckus believes it can find a happy middle ground where a small office can set up a network as easily as it would a home router, but still take advantage of some more sophisticated enterprise features. Key to that strategy is Harmony, the iOS and Android app that acts as the controller for the network.

“We wanted to provide a really simple solution,” Mustarde said. “Everyone has a smartphone in their pocket, and if you’re a network manager you don’t want to have to go to a computer every time you want to deal with an issue.”

From the app you can configure multiple access points, set up multiple public and private networks and monitor all of the devices connecting to them. That’s all pretty standard stuff, but Mustarde said the app and Xclaim access points have several capabilities you’re not going to find on any consumer router. For instance, Harmony has traffic prioritization settings that can sniff out VoIP and video traffic and open up a fast lane for those packets across the network. Or Harmony can manage clogged conditions on the network, ensuring faster 802.11n and ac devices don’t have to wait in line behind older 802.11b and g devices while they finish their downloads.

The Harmony App (source: Ruckus)

The Harmony App (source: Ruckus)

Mustarde wouldn’t comment on or confirm Ruckus’s partnership with [company]Google[/company], which I learned about in May from a source close to the deal. He did, however, say that Xclaim would be an ideal hardware platform on which a company like Google or Facebook could build a cloud-managed Wi-Fi network. [company]Facebook[/company] is already working with [company]Cisco Systems[/company] to develop business Wi-Fi networks that would use Facebook ID as a universal credential.

Google’s plans, however, appear to be a bit more ambitious than just managing logins and collecting data on Wi-Fi users. According to The Information — which broke the original story about Google’s Wi-Fi plans — Google plans to subsidize and manage local businesses’ Wi-Fi networks in exchange for using their access points as part of a larger virtual network accessible to Google users. I learned from my source that Google plans to handle the mammoth task of managing those myriad nodes through access points and cloud-based controllers supplied by Ruckus.

Given that description, the way Xclaim is configured today wouldn’t be of much use to Google – it needs to manage multiple thousands of access points from a data center, not a dozen routers from an Android app. But with some tweaks Xclaim could easily become the network equipment behind Google’s business Wi-Fi service. Mustarde told me the next step for Ruckus is to build tablet apps for Xclaim, but in 2015 it plans to launch a cloud management platform for the product line.

This post was updated at 8:25 AM PT with background on the business Wi-Fi landscape.