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Microwave Radios: Network Expansion the Easy Way
Microwave Radios: Network Expansion the Easy Way

Microwave radio networks have enabled organizations to extend their IP networks far beyond their local environments, achieving a rapid ROI in the process.

The growing popularity of high-speed wireless networks is due at least in part to their capacity for rapid deployment, speed, reliability, and their facility for network management. Compared to leased lines, the equipment can create a return-on-investment scenario within a few months. The cost of trenching to lay fiber, the complexity of negotiating right-of-way permits, and the recurring costs associated with leasing fiber lines creates a strong business case for the use of microwave radios in networking applications.

These aspects have allowed organizations to extend their IP networks far beyond their local environments and have created many opportunities for business growth. Popular uses for high-speed point-to-point (PtP) microwave wireless networks include enterprise LAN extension, application sharing between locations, and aggregation and backhaul of IP traffic. Traffic capacities of 100Mbps or more, coupled with low latency, allow virtually any IP application to be carried, including VLAN data, streaming video, VoIP, and encrypted data.

In effect, the microwave Ethernet bridge acts as an Ethernet cable extender whereby it transmits any received IP traffic to the far end over the microwave link. The type of IP traffic is immaterial; the data is simply transmitted over the microwave link. IP traffic backhaul possibly presents the best picture of how the microwave radio systems can be integrated into a network.

IP Backhaul
Wireless service providers continue to build out their networks by aggregating lower-speed data connections to a high-speed PtP microwave radio backhaul network. They are extending their reach as large-scale WISPs or as a wireless carrier's carrier by providing wireless backhaul for local or regional WISPs. The microwave radio IP backhaul network typically connects to a fiber backbone, which in turn connects to an Internet gateway point. Their goal is to have wireless network subscribers routed to a major backbone location providing large amounts of bandwidth and low latency.

A typical network scenario is shown in Figure 1. Subscribers are connected through 802.11 2.4GHz or 5.8GHz wireless devices, and are routed to multipoint aggregation points of presence, which in turn are routed to the backbone through a high-speed, low latency microwave radio system. Increasingly, wireless service providers are moving toward point-to-point microwave radios for backhaul due to their bandwidth capacity and the policy of "no down-speeding," whereby the microwave radio systems continue to operate at full data rate right to the edge of their signal-level thresholds.

Distances of 10-15 miles between aggregation points and the network termination point can readily be achieved using PtP microwave radios, and the distance can increase significantly with the use of back-to-back systems. As with most wireless systems, these microwave radios can achieve distances of greater than 50 miles; however the reliability is below that deemed acceptable by the wireless service providers (see Figure 1).

Management
Microwave radio systems can be fully managed through Simple Network Management Protocol (SNMP) using industry-standard SNMP network management stations such as HP OpenView or Castle Rock Computing's SNMPc. SNMP allows service providers to monitor the microwave radio link performance, device performance, and IP traffic statistics, and provides the ability to monitor alarms or traps generated from the microwave radio system. Microwave radio systems provide industry-standard MIB I and MIB II information plus an enterprise MIB that provides over 200 parameters for management of the microwave link. Telnet access is supported by most systems, allowing for system management and troubleshooting by mobile technical workers. Some systems can be configured for management through a VLAN, such that any Telnet or SNMP management packets must contain the proper VLAN tagged packet in order to be accepted by the target microwave radio system.

Putting It All Together - Connecting the Microwave Radio to the Network
A microwave radio system that provides an Ethernet interface can easily connect to a large variety of networking devices such as switches or routers, as shown in Figure 2. The microwave radio system is connected in the same manner as any other networking equipment, that being through a CAT5 Ethernet cable. Microwave radio systems typically provide a CAT5 cable with options for autonegotiation and for forced 100Mbps full duplex. Depending upon the capabilities of the network device, connecting to the Ethernet is usually all the effort that's required. In some cases, a crossover connection may be necessary. If the network operates over fiber instead of CAT5 cable, then a media converter is used to interface between the microwave radio's Ethernet cable and the fiber network.

Security
In contrast to WLAN technology security issues, which received wide media coverage, microwave radio systems offer many security refinements. To begin with, the data within the radio signal is encoded in a proprietary manner making it extremely difficult to decode the signal. Any received data appears as random data to anyone attempting to eavesdrop. The incoming Ethernet frames are broken apart and re-configured into proprietary data before retransmission, and the original Ethernet beginning and end frames do not appear within the radio signal. This is all done while maintaining high throughput and low latency. Idle times within the Ethernet traffic are handled by bit-stuffing the microwave radio signal, thereby further obfuscating the original data.

As if the transposing of Ethernet data to a random radio signal is not enough, the very nature of the microwave signal makes it difficult to eavesdrop. The transmitted microwave signal, or beam, is very narrow - typically 2 degrees or less - and a potential eavesdropper must be in line with the signal in order to detect any energy. This can be very difficult since most installations are on a transmission tower or on the rooftop of a tall building.

Some microwave radio systems also offer a technique called authentication whereby the endpoints must authenticate with each other before data is transmitted. If authentication fails, such as the case where an eavesdropper tries to communicate with a node, then the system can be configured to stop all IP traffic flow until the peer node reauthenticates.

New Innovations
Ease of connection, high speed, reliability, and SNMP management of microwave radio systems has been further enhanced with the addition of a new unlicensed 24GHz radio band. While licensing of microwave radio frequencies is quickly and easily accomplished through one of the approved FCC license coordinators, the new 24GHz unlicensed band allows immediate deployment, yet still maintains all the benefits of microwave radio. This bodes well for disaster recovery applications where the microwave radio system simply needs to be connected, perhaps with a simple routing table addition, and the network is up and running once again.

Conclusion
Microwave radios offering continuous wire-speed, low latency, and zero packet loss capabilities ensure that any and all IP applications can be carried over the link and that performance will meet user expectations. Security and network management capabilities round out the case for microwave radios. Their popularity has shown that many service providers and IT managers have discovered the benefits and have bought into the idea.

About Tony McNeill
Tony McNeill is the director of customer support at DragonWave Inc. He has been active in the telecommunications, networking, and Internet industry for over 22 years.

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