Though enterprise Wi-Fi tends to grab headlines with tales of enormous feature sets and Cadillac-grade pricing, the other end of the business WLAN spectrum has some really compelling offerings too.

Small to mid-sized businesses (SMBs) need wireless as much as big environments do, but often don’t have the in-house talent or budget to use top-end gear. Thankfully, there are a lot of attractive WLAN offerings in the SMB space. Let’s take a look at what’s out there.

All big players have a low end

From Aruba Networks to Xirrus and all major WLAN vendors in between, you can find scaled-down gear that often wears the “branch solution” label. We won’t dig into the details of this segment here, but it’s worth mentioning that you can fit big-name gear into small businesses if you choose.

Quasi-enterprise choices for SMB

When the biggest names in wireless might be overkill for price and complexity, there’s another tier of products that provides a subset of enterprise-grade functionality. These tend to be quite popular with SMB customers.

In this category, you’ll find companies like EnGenius and Ubiquiti. Both of these vendors have solid options, including software-based controllers for bigger SMBs that want on-premises (usually) central management and monitoring of multiple APs through a single interface.

Among others, DLink is also interesting. The company not only has strong SMB wireless options, but also LAN products, CCTV, building automation, and other gadgetry that may be of interest in the business setting.

Cloud-managed offerings on the rise

I run very large and very small network environments. I’ve come to rely on, and highly regard, cloud-managed offerings in environments where there’s no IT staff. For cloud Wi-Fi, the software and UI are as compelling as the hardware story.

On the very cheap, Open Mesh and Cucumber Tony both provide incredible cloud-managed value. Then there’s AirTight Networks (just renamed Mojo Networks), Aerohive, and Meraki (part of Cisco). Some vendors here are pure-play Wi-Fi, others have switches, routers, and security appliances.

When SMB customers hire out their Wi-Fi to integrators, more of those integrators are using cloud-managed networking to build their own managed services businesses. This is an exciting space, and it will see more growth and evolution in the foreseeable future.

One major downside of the cloud: If you don’t do it right, you could end up with a mishmash of different technologies and levels of manageability that could actually be more difficult to manage than if you just skipped the cloud altogether.

Options for the budget-constrained

For the SMB do-it-yourselfer with a small budget, there are still viable options for acquiring better than mall-grade consumer components. As larger businesses refresh their WLAN infrastructures, a lot of top-grade 802.11n gear makes it to eBay and Craigslist. Usually the asking prices are pennies on the original dollars, and the technology is still very relevant.

Where there truly is no budget, even consumer gear can be tricked out with software like DD-WRT that can greatly enhance the typically limited functionality that comes with the cheapest gear. The disadvantage here is you still end up with unmanaged equipment, so this route may not be applicable beyond the smallest mom and pop shop.

The gear is just part of the story

There’s a lot more to the SMB networking market than the vendors mentioned here. Hopefully, you get the idea that this space is dynamic, with many choices and approaches to fit a wide range of budgets and needs.

Beyond contemplating what solutions to use, anyone shopping for Wi-Fi in the small business realm should understand that simply getting signal throughout a store or café is usually the easy part. Setting up a secure and sustainable WLAN that doesn’t become a liability or source of frustration for business and customers alike is a completely different matter… but that’s best saved for another post.

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