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Autonomous vs Lightweight Access Points

Autonomous & Lightweight Access Points

When you design a wireless network, you need to have all of your options available from the beginning. When you know what choices exist, you can select from them and make the best network possible.

In that spirit, it can help to understand the primary difference in types of access points. For the most part, a wireless access point can be autonomous or lightweight. This article will go over the main distinctions between these access points and how they can be advantageous or disadvantageous, depending on your network’s design and purpose.

Autonomous Access Points

Autonomous access points are far and away more common than their lightweight counterparts. The first autonomous access points were developed to connect wireless devices as simply as possible. Over time, they became more sophisticated, and modern autonomous access points typically work via WLAN.

This is where the access point and switch for wireless traffic are combined. The controller in the WLAN is what distinguishes it from lightweight access points. As the name autonomous implies, the controller allows the single device to manage traffic independently from any additional support.

As such, an autonomous access point is a one-man army in wireless connectivity. You can connect as many devices to it as you like (within the limits of the devices’ design). If you need additional support for traffic, you can add autonomous access points and configure them to work together.

This last part is why autonomous access points are not always the right answer. Manually configuring an autonomous workgroup can get prohibitively complicated. Those complications can make networks more expensive and less reliable. So, while autonomous points are amazing when working alone, when they need more help, they might not be the best option.

Lightweight Access Points

Lightweight access points are designed somewhat antithetically to autonomous points. The term ‘lightweight’ refers to the fact that these devices cannot work independently. They rely on an external wireless LAN controller (WLC). Through this independent controller, many lightweight access points can be configured to work on the same network.

This design is intended to make it easier to expand a wireless network. The dependent lightweight controllers pull their configuration from the WLC. That means that they essentially operate as plug and play expansions to the network. A new lightweight device can be powered on. It will search for the WLC and download configurations from it. This includes protocols, security and everything else tied to the configuration.

It’s important to make a distinction. While lightweight access points can communicate seamlessly via the external WLC, the entire system runs on a different protocol that is used by autonomous access points. This means that autonomous APs and lightweight APs cannot work together on the same network without significant workarounds.

All of that said, many access points can be placed in autonomous or lightweight mode. This allows you to adapt your network to the protocol that better suits your needs. But, remember that switching between autonomous and lightweight modes will not always be a simple process. That will depend on the manufacturer and model in use.

Picking the Right Access Point

Considering the differences between lightweight and autonomous access points, there are some key indicators that determine which is appropriate for a network. Since many devices can work in either mode, this decision hinges more on the purpose and management of the network, rather than which devices need to be purchased.

Autonomous access points are easier to deploy in small networks. Since you only need one device to handle all of the traffic, that makes the decision simple. If your network capacity can be served by a single access point, then make it autonomous and take advantage of the simplicity.

Lightweight network designs thrive when capacity or coverage needs to be rapidly expanded or shifted. Networks that might scale up quickly in the future will benefit from the rapid deployment opportunities presented by lightweight network design. The plug and play nature of the system makes it easy to move or add access points as needed. While this system requires more hardware at the outset, the cost of design, deployment and maintenance scales down as the number of devices in the network scales up.

The right kind of access point will make a world of difference when it comes to deploying and maintaining your network. Need help choosing? Contact one of our Network Experts to help you plan out your access point setup.

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