Jul 07, 2011

Is the Cisco Aironet 3500 really worth 10x the cost of other Wifi routers?

My IT guy is requesting that we purchase a Cisco Aironet 3500. Last year when I upgraded my home wifi router to a 802.11N device, it was around $100. What makes the Cisco router worth a thousand bucks?


OK, it's 2 years late, but mabye someone will benefit from this.  I'm a small biz sysadmin/all-purpose-IT person, and just starting to learn the enterprise gear, by buying the previous generation equipment off ebay.  It's a cheap way to learn the system.


I could just barely see a small biz requiring enterprise wifi.  And if you need it, it's going to cost more than the price of one access point or router, because nearly all the extra features you get with enterprise equipment is related to reducing the amount of time spent walking around the building, rearranging network cables, and implementing complex configurations.  But these features have a cost: the overhead required to learn to configure and deploy the equipment is much longer.  Not only that, but the web interfaces for Cisco products suck.

On the flipside, the SOHO consumer routers are completely the other way around.  You reset them, and plug-and-play.  You don't need to read the manuals, though you should.  The configuration, if you decide to do it, is simpler and less likely to cause errors, and the web interfaces are pretty smooth.  On the other hand, your SOHO router/AP isn't going to have much flexibility.

For example, if you decide to partition your network into two LANs, so the WiFi is on a guest network... you might be able to do it with the SOHO router/AP... maybe.  You most definitely can do it with the enterprise-grade router/AP.  Not only that, but it'll be pretty easy, and when you read the configuration script or look at the configuration screens, you'll be able to "read" them and guess what your goals were.

If you decide you need another AP somewhere, and there's no cabling to it, no problem.  The enterprise device can be converted to a WiFi bridged AP.  The consumer line also had a bridged AP, but it's a different product.  If you eventually don't need that SOHO bridged AP, you can't really reconfigure it and use it differently.


If you have multiple devices to configure, it's easier to document the work if you use IOS's command line scripts.  Instead of clicking into the web interface of each router/AP, you just edit the config file for each device, and then SSH in and paste the configuration in (or upload it, whichever).

Suppose you need a different kind of antenna, with more directionality.  The enterprise device will support it.  The SOHO probably won't.

If your IT person just wants to use this as an opportunity to learn Cisco, then, I'd suggest giving them $200 to buy old gear, and get a $200 SOHO device for the office.  That $200 will get you a pretty kick-ass WiFi network that won't run as fast as the SOHO device, but will probably make some previously impossible or different things possible, like WiFi into odd rooms.

Now, all this said, consider non-Cisco enterprise stuff as well, like HP, Ruckus, or Juniper.  At least look at it.


Being aware that the question is a year old I would like to add my flavor to this. Being a Cisco shareholder I should say - Absolutely go right ahead. However of you are asking are they worth it  - short answer No.


Still from an operational and performance perspective - you simply cannot run a business network off consumer gear.  Authentication must be better, mobility between access points must be better. Troubleshooting must be better.  In addition the work environment is more likely to use flourecent lighting in volume rather incandescent or LED lighting in most homes.  Office light systems typically disturb wireless networks and since you use this network to carry your sources of income, you'd better have a way to address potential issues. 


Modern controller baser WLAN systems offer better performance, management and coverage than any consumer grade system. It also adds other functions like tracking devices and seamless roaming (in support of voice over IP over WLAN.  That is a tough nut to crack on consumer equipment most of the time. 


That being said other alternatives do exist - beyond Cisco and I would suggest looking at those. 

Aruba Networks are more sophisticated vs their technology and HP is equivalent to Cisco midrange equipment but priced much more attractively.  


Considering that - you may want to look for alternatives  - keep in mind that controller based APs do require (in most cases) a central WLAN controller, This does not come for free, either.  


So in balance if your business is of the size of a home - by all means use a consumer grade system - otherwise seek help and get a real system. 


It depends on the application, but some major differences between consumer and enterprise grade wireless access points are manageability, scalability and security.  If you only need one access point (small office footprint, few wireless clients) then a consumer grade AP may be more appropriate, but consider:  who will know when the AP is not functioning - are you okay with your users telling you it's broken or do you need to know it's down before they do?  How will you (or your IT guy) be managing security?  Will you use a single-signon account such as Active Directory or are you okay with communicating a pre-shared key to the wireless clients; are you okay with having to "touch" all those wireless clients again when the key needs to change, for whatever reason?  How large is the wireless area to be covered and if it needs multiple AP's for coverage do you have requirements for "roaming" between APs or are you okay with your wireless clients getting disassociated and re-associated to the closest / strongest signal?  Do you have power outlets near the appropriate point of installation, or can you avoid power cabling / installation costs by using Power-over-Ethernet capable APs?


Additionally, the Cisco 3500 AP is a "lightweight" AP, which means it does not function on its own, but joins a controller for centralized management and policy enforcement - does your organization already have a lightweight AP infrastructure to which your IT guy is just adding another node?  Or is this a green-field installation where no wireless service exist today?


A controller based AP deployment versus multiple stand-alone consumer grade APs is a universe of difference - you should have a discussion with your IT guy so that you and everyone else understands the requirements that drive technology decisions. 



Low-end linksys/cisco products have a 1 year warranty; Cisco business products like the Aironet 3500 series have a 10 year warranty. Of course, in 3-5 years you'll want to upgrade to a faster product...


The "IT Guy" should provide you with 2(minimum) solutions and explain why the 1K solution is best for the organization and then the Alternative(s).  Cisco make quality products that will last years longer than the $100 home solutions. I implented 4 Cisco Aironet earlier models that cost about $500/each and they have been running for 7 + years without a hitch.  On the other hand, the Owner of the business has gone through as many if not more $100 solutions in less time using the lesser quality models.

Cost Comparison, Warranty, Support, and alternative solutions should be part of the process in your business. I am an IT Professional so I speak from experience. Your "IT Guy" should know this when approaching you with a solution.


Lastly, is it worth a thousand bucks? No one but the key decision maker can answer that question and you would have to base that off of what you are getting in return for your money.

Hope this helps.



Technically you're comparing two different market targets.  The Aironet 3500 is more Enterprise focused, where the Linksys (Made by Cisco) is for the Consumer.


Depending on your need the 3500 may or may not work for you.  If you're a small office I would say it is overkill, but if your a large organization with many thousands of square feet you'll need more than one.


I would suggest pricing out a Wireless Site Survey for proper scaling of the wireless infrastructure and purchasing equipment based on that.  Otherwise you'll end up with a $1,000 paperweight.


Holy Cow! That's a lot of money to spend for Wi-Fi. But if it's more reliable, secure, and allows network administrators to export a (complex) configuration file, that would help with business continuity planning, that's probably has some added value.

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