Monday, July 07, 2008

Meraki Outdoor

A mesh networking repeater for harsh conditions.
In the last few years, mesh networking has been transformed from a largely military application into a tool for providing Internet access to large populations. ­Meraki's Outdoor repeater ($100-$200) can transmit to other, simpler repeaters; the company has a network set up in San Francisco, with additional networks in places from Alaska to the southern tip of South America. "Some of our customers are considering blanketing entire cities with hundreds of thousands of devices," says ­Sanjit Biswas, a former TR35 honoree, who cofounded the company in 2006, drawing on research he did at MIT.

A. Weatherproof Shell
The shell of the repeater is made of a polymer treated to block UV radiation, so it can "sit out and bake in the sun for a few years," says Biswas. The green O-ring around the internal perimeter is secured with screws, which put enough pressure on the seal to form a waterproof barrier. Green cable plugs at the bottom, made of a silicone rubber, maintain a compression seal around the Ethernet cable. A working Outdoor is submerged in a fish tank in Meraki's office, to prove that it can survive a monsoon.

B. Radio/Antenna
A Wi-Fi radio lets the Outdoor establish an Internet connection with another repeater. Its typical range is a few hundred meters to half a kilometer; on a rooftop, the repeater can reach up to a few kilometers. The top connector can accommodate different kinds of antennas, such as a directional antenna that can connect to other repeaters eight to ten kilometers away.

C. Ethernet Ports
Two 100-megabit Ethernet ports allow cables to carry power, not just information. This lets a user run a single cable, making it easier to set up a repeater on a roof or in a hard-to-reach spot. The repeater is designed to run on unreliable power, such as that produced by a solar battery. Four LEDs on the outside show signal strength.

D. System on a Chip
A single "system on a chip" integrates the Wi‑Fi-based radio and central processor, as well as other critical components like memory. The device deliberately has empty space: the circuit board faces down in a large cavity, where air currents keep it cool without a fan, despite heat from the chips and from the sun.

Data Centers
While mesh network algorithms run on the repeater, three Meraki-run data centers do the heavy lifting, helping to keep the devices simple and cheap. From the data processing centers, Meraki manages users, distributes bandwidth, and carries out other data-intensive processes for millions of repeaters. Internet-accessible dashboard software plots the locations of the repeaters, shows users the health of the network, and suggests where it could be made stronger. For larger networks, the dashboard helps manage users and billing. "The combination of the software on the devices and our back end lets you do things like offer a tier of free Wi-Fi and another tier of paid access that's faster," says Biswas.

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