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Lee Badman
Lee Badman
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Aerohive Makes Fat Wireless Phat

When you do the marketing math, Aeorhive's case is easily made. Big WLAN vendors are having a field day making whopping throughput claims to hawk their latest 802.11n hardware, and the prevailing undercurrent through all IT media centers on the explosion of mobile and portable devices that are becoming mainstream computing devices. Take all those devices, using all of that bandwidth, and you have to wonder if sending it all to the network core is the best strategy. Aerohive says the wireless con

When you do the marketing math, Aeorhive's case is easily made. Big WLAN vendors are having a field day making whopping throughput claims to hawk their latest 802.11n hardware, and the prevailing undercurrent through all IT media centers on the explosion of mobile and portable devices that are becoming mainstream computing devices. Take all those devices, using all of that bandwidth, and you have to wonder if sending it all to the network core is the best strategy. Aerohive says the wireless controller model should be yesterday's news in an 802.11n world, and that its smart, fat access points are the better way of doing wireless, by eliminating potential controller bottlenecks.

Back in the day, all wireless access points were "fat." They each configured separately, which was a double-edged sword. Managing large numbers of independently thinking access points can be challenging, and features like fast secure roaming are iffy on large legacy WLANs.

At the same time, traffic forwarding is arguably more efficient with autonomous access points, as traffic isn't traversing giant aggregated links back to expensive controller appliances. But Aruba, Cisco, Meru and others convinced the market that "thin is in," and most large wireless networks today are built on lightweight APs that rely on controllers for configuration and traffic aggregation back into the wired network within each vendor's version of Generic Routing Encapsulation (GRE)-like tunnels that contain wireless VLANs and control signaling. 

It is nice to configure a controller that, in turn, configures hundreds of access points, and advanced features like automated channel and power settings are standard in controllers. But controllers can be extremely costly single points of failure, and their occasional buggyness can create tremendous administrative burdens when things go wrong.

Enter Aerohive. This minor player in the WLAN market is growing and garnering all sorts of recognition among analysts, who love to use terms like "cool," "innovative" and "hot" when describing the company and product set. In a nutshell, Aerohive combines the good of legacy autonomous access points with the benefits of central management and coordinated control, to create a solution that eliminates controllers while still competing with controller-based solutions.

Could the Aerohive model portend the future of the WLAN market? It may be too early to tell just how disruptive this controller-less model will prove to be, but Aerohive's Devin Akin (of Certified Wireless Network Professional fame) tells a good story about why he believes in his company's architecture.

Akin has been in the wireless game a long time and is widely respected as a WLAN industry expert. That he is with Aerohive is interesting in itself, and his explanation of the hive architecture is pretty fascinating, whether or not you completely agree with the philosophy behind it.  

Hives are groups of access points that use Cooperative Control (Aerohive-speak for a collection of protocols that form the bulk of the solution's magic) to share a control plane while keeping traffic forwarding at the AP. Hives can be quite large, and a single hive can actually be a complete large WLAN if you choose. With no controller, failover is simplified when trouble hits an AP. Aerohive's home-grown and extremely resource-beefy APs use Open Shortest Path First (OSPF)-like aspects to decide optimal traffic paths as part of what Akin describes as "responsible local forwarding."

Aerohive claims feature parity with the big guys, from QoS to security to spectrum management, all without the controller layer required. As the admin of a large controller-based network, I hope that Aerohive's approach takes root and spreads to other vendors. I'd gladly support big-boned access points again if they could deliver the contemporary WLAN experience without that layer of controller fat in the middle.

Lee is a Network Engineer and Wireless Technical Lead for a large private university. He also teaches classes on networking, wireless network administrtaion, and wireless security. Lee's technical background includes 10 years in the US Air Force as an Electronc Warfare ... View Full Bio
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