Meraki has been the leader in cloud-based wireless networking for years. With a mission statement of providing the "easiest to manage enterprise WLAN", the cloud Wi-Fi management system challenges the controller based systems of Aruba and Cisco, and shares some characteristics with the likes of Aerohive and Bluesocket. With their latest access point offerings, Meraki goes beyond hosting their clients' central system control functions by shrinking both the size of their primary access point offerings and their costs. The changes may not seem like a big deal at first blush, but they may well be a barometer of where the WLAN market is going.
When I recently chatted with Meraki's Kiren Sekar, I was prepared to muddle through yet another product introduction. But as we got deeper into the conversation I was struck by a couple of notions. First, Meraki's new access points are not a lower-tier offering that leaves customers wondering "do I buy the more expensive AP or the less expensive AP, and what are the differences?" Many of the other WLAN market players, such as Meru, are creating that very confusion as they roll out junior APs that have many, but not all, of the capabilities of their top-shelf offerings.
Meraki keeps it simple- the new MR12 and MR16 APs are the standard offering for any prospective customer. Sekar explained that existing APs continue to be supported and customers can still order them if they like, but the product line has become elegantly simple. The MR12 is the 4th-generation, single-radio offering and the MR16 is the new top dog, replacing the vaunted MR-14 in a package that takes a page from Apple in it's new thin profile form factor. Sekar mentioned that Meraki builds their own APs, and have heard loud and clear the customer demands for low-profile, aesthetically pleasing, high-performing access points. Both the MR12 and MR16 auto-configure and support up to 200 clients per AP while providing every feature and mode of operation that Meraki has to offer. (For outdoor mesh, the MR58 is still very much current.) List prices? Under $400 for the MR12 and $649 for the MR16. Remember- the MR16 competes with the other guys' "top tier" offerings.
So Meraki put out nice APs and is keeping their product line simple- big deal, right? That's only part of the story. The second impression I formed after talking with Sekar is that the controller-based market is facing increasing competition. Of course, Meraki isn't the only one putting on the pressure. With Meraki, the controller is in the cloud. Aerohive- who has garnered their share of recognition for innovation- requires no controller whatsoever, and Motorola's latest WiNG5 architecture moves the controller out of the staring role in the wireless framework to one that's more in the background and doesn't require as many controllers for a given number of APs.
Bluesocket has a model that allows for "private cloud" wireless, again making the controller less important than it once was. Granted, if you compare the market share of all of the challengers, the beefy expensive controller networks still win. But change always has to start somewhere, and as the smaller WLAN players get better at what they do, and controller customers burn out on high hardware prices and another layer of bugs, potential bottlenecks, and complexity, it stands to reason that we may eventually see a market-wide dilution of wireless controller importance.