LAS VEGAS--Wireless mesh networks offer a number of intriguing features, but entities considering such networks should make an effort to be informed and maintain a healthy amount of skepticism when dealing with vendors offering equipment in the space, Lockard & White consultant Parris Neal said yesterday.

“The whole idea of mesh networking is really cool, but it’s tough to do well,” Neal said during an IWCE session entitled “Understanding Mesh Networks.” “You need to make sure that the type of system meets your needs, because every protocol has its pluses and minuses.”

While the advantages of mesh networks--the flexibility to form self-healing ad hoc networks automatically with each client device also serving as a router in the network--are well documented, the additional overhead information associated with each packet can result in decreased data rates, Neal said. In fact, as much as 75% of the available bandwidth in a link can be lost in just two hops in a mesh system.

“This is the absolute worst-case scenario, but it gives you an idea about the penalty you pay for multiple hops--there ain’t no free lunch,” Neal said. “Are there ways around this? Yes, but they do add complexity and cost.”

This certainly is the case for mesh implementations that utilize multiple radios in each node and directional antennas to increase network efficiencies—something that may be necessary to run latency-sensitive applications such as video or voice over IP on the network, Neal said. Additional access points with high-speed backhaul to a central network can reduce the number of hops needed in the mesh, but such backhaul opportunities typically are not ubiquitous in a geographic area and may require extra expense.

Enterprises considering mesh architectures also should be aware that there is little standardization in the burgeoning mesh arena, Neal said. Even when the IEEE 802.11s standard is finalized, it only will address the Layer 1 and Layer 2 aspects of the system, he said.

“There are lots of companies building [mesh] networks, and every one of them is using proprietary technology,” Neal said, noting the importance of selecting a solid vendor.

Neal expressed optimism about the myriad applications enabled by mesh-networking technologies, as long as customers take the time to become educated enough about the systems to recognize their inherent limitations.

“Once you get outside of those boundaries, you’re walking on thin ice,” he said. “This is not Utopia … so buyer beware—some systems don’t work as advertised.”