Wireless Infrastructure

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Lee Badman
Lee Badman
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Cloud-Managed Wi-Fi Targets Shopping Malls

PowerCloud Systems aims to gain share in the cloud-managed WLAN market by expanding into retail, but the company faces stiff competition from established vendors.

Since I last wrote about PowerCloud Systems and its cloud-managed Wi-Fi technology in late 2011, the company has nailed down some big hospitality customers, including Nickelodeon Suites Resort in Orlando. Now, PowerCloud is looking to spread its wings into retail and multi-unit dwelling environments with its new Tenant WiFi framework.

Tenant WiFi's promise is simple: All subscribers get a private, secure WLAN delivered via a single management portal. PowerCloud hopes to win over shopping malls with this framework, envisioning each store getting a private, Internet bandwidth-guaranteed WLAN as part of its lease agreement. All store wireless networks would be managed by the mall's management or IT partner. In this scenario, PowerCloud also partners with "presence service partners" for customer analytics and loyalty programs like on-site coupons.

On the hardware side, PowerCloud hopes to undercut competitors by offering access points that are priced well under $500 and require no controllers or other hardware. The Enable series of access points is certainly a step up from the re-badged DLink units from PowerCloud I once test-drove, but pundits will point out that they are still only a 2x2 11n AP in a space where 802.11ac is soon to be "current."

The second part of PowerCloud's latest gambit parallels a move recently made by Meraki to provide a dashboard service for channel partners that lets it provide cloud-based networking to its clients directly. The PowerUp program provides training and support for VARs and integrators eager to get into the cloud-services game, with minimum investment. As a Meraki customer, I am quite fond of the cloud-managed network paradigm for some of my sites, but channel partners who bite on becoming wireless providers have to realize that a pretty dashboard isn't the end of the story. You still need effective site surveys, strong competence in understanding RF behavior and a solid grasp on the nuances of supporting a wide variety of client devices in dynamic environments. Without an investment in these, would-be wireless providers are doomed to failure.

Though I like that PowerCloud is bringing another dimension to cloud-based networking, I don't see the company as a real threat yet to Meraki or Aerohive. Both of these WLAN vendors have matured to the point where they also offer their own cloud-managed switches and security appliances, and take aim at true enterprise customers while still retaining the capability for dashboard-managed multiple network scenarios.

With PowerCloud, there is no real answer for wired clients beyond hooking them up via a bridge for wireless connectivity. Though most devices could be made to connect this way, there are some devices that even the most devout believers in Wi-Fi would still rather string an Ethernet cord to in business settings. Those devices include servers, door access systems, and critical resources that either need higher guaranteed bandwidth or interference resistance that wireless just can't deliver because of the laws of physics.

Time will tell if PowerCloud's multitenant strategy will be viable. I do know that many retail chains have boilerplate IT requirements that corporate management dictates, and so not all stores in a mall would likely be able to take advantage of the PowerCloud system should mall management make it available. At the same time, there are a lot of smaller merchants out there that struggle to piece together a decent IT framework at a time when customers expect wireless everywhere, so PowerCloud's latest product just might fit the bill.

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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