Hub and Spoke vs. Mesh Wireless Networks

Updated: May 21, 2010

Hub and Spoke Wireless Network

A hub and spoke network is a traditional, proven, and widely used topology for all types of networks; it's also called the star topology. Essentially, the access point is physically connected to the Internet with a wire; like spokes on a wheel, all user devices connect to the wireless router in the center. All network traffic must go through the hub to reach other spokes in the network or to connect to an outside network.

A hub and spoke network can be small with a single access point, like in your local WiFi-enabled coffee shop or at home, or it can be large enough to cover to connect a corporate enterprise with multiple APs. Most cellular voice networks are hub and spoke, as well; the cellular tower for a certain region is the hub, and all the mobile devices roaming through that area are the spokes.

Hub and spoke networks are well understood by all network administrators, and their benefits are thoroughly documented. They offer a high degree of security because each device on the network is isolated from the others through the single connection to the wireless router. Other benefits include high performance, centralization, and simplicity. They're relatively inexpensive and easy to wire and easy to fix if a component goes down.

The most important con to this network topology is the single point of failure at the center. If the wireless router dies, the entire network goes dark.

Mesh Wireless Network

Mesh wireless networks are new, but growing fast. They're currently built with proprietary protocols, but a new standard for mesh networks, 802.11s, is expected to be finalized by 2011. A mesh wireless network has several access points that all connect directly to each other; every node on the network can act as an access point, but only one needs to be physically connected to the Internet. Access points automatically discover each other and intelligently route wireless traffic, so data "hops" from one access point to the next until it reaches an access point that is wired to the Internet.

Mesh wireless networks are gaining in popularity, especially among city governments and universities that want to provide free bandwidth to local users. Inexpensive yet sturdy routers can be installed on light poles and traffic lights around town, extending the wireless network's range limitlessly. Mesh wireless networks can also be a cost-effective solution for large in door spaces, like a warehouse or hospital campus, and for connecting a wireless network to a wired network.

Not only can mesh networks extend a wireless network almost anywhere -- even in rural areas without phone lines -- they are resilient and fault tolerant. If one access point goes down, traffic can be routed through many others. They can also be set up quickly, on an ad-hoc basis. However, mesh networking is still in development, and mesh networks aren't as seamless as spoke and hub wireless networks. For instance, moving nodes -- such as mobile devices -- may not be able to pick up a new connection very easily or quickly while moving through coverage areas.

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