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Cloud-Managed WLAN Is Hot, But Not For Everyone

The cloud-managed WLAN market continues to expand with established vendors and startups rolling out a variety of services. But despite the growing number of options, cloud-managed WLAN isn't practical for everyone. The market has yet to offer the types of options that make it feasible for large-scale enterprise WLANs.

Cloud-managed WiFi is hot. Recent entrants into the market include Ruckus Wireless and the newcomer Relay2. Though Ruckus's service is an order of magnitude less expensive and more feature rich than Relay2's, the fact that new players are showing up in a crowded field shows that we're not yet at vendor saturation.

The cloud-managed WLAN market has evolved rapidly from just a few years ago, when Meraki and Aerohive stood in defiance of all the controller and fat-AP enterprise WiFi players. In 2011, the niche provider PowerCloud's launch was significant in that it was arguably the first real stab taken at marketing cloud-based hotspots directly to retail and hospitality sectors. Though this seemed a bit strange back then, PowerCloud actually blazed a trail of sorts with the promise of easy-to-install, low-cost, manage-from-anywhere WiFi for chain stores, restaurants, and hotels.

Today, we have everyone from Aruba to Xirrus with a cloud WiFi story, though seldom are any two services exactly alike. Meraki (now part of Cisco) and Aerohive Networks offer end-to-end cloud-managed IT environments with tightly coupled WLAN components, while other vendors offer simple cloud-managed WiFi access, or WiFi plus some feature set, with no switch or security appliance options.

Small, established environments are usually updated to cloud-managed WLAN models with relative ease by virtue of their small scales. I have upgraded a dozen small branch locations to cloud-based WiFi, and I have become both a believer and an advocate for the paradigm. These spaces were changed fairly easily because they were small, with no AP more than a single switch hop away from its gateway.

But I also have a 4,000-AP-strong enterprise that can't easily move to the cloud. It's not for lack of want, but because of something that's missing in the WLAN industry's overall approach to cloud-managed WiFi architectures.

Today's cloud wireless systems feature high-performance 802.11n and 802.11ac access points, just like I have in my enterprise WLAN. Cloud systems can provide all the modern security features I need, and they provide a range of analytics and reporting that come close enough to my on-premises system. But here's the problem: I can't simply migrate my current-generation, cutting-edge, multimillion-dollar WLAN to the cloud for management. I'd have to rip and replace the whole enchilada.

I'd have to abandon my controller investment and replumb my network topology with VLANs and such, because my "thin" Cisco APs encapsulate VLANs in a CAPWAP tunnel, while cloud-managed APs emulate legacy "fat APs" to which you run trunks. Note that this isn't a problem exclusive to Cisco deployments.

The missing piece for customers like me? There's no "hybrid" model that lets you keep everything you have in place for controllers and APs but move network management and monitoring to the cloud. This is when many cloud vendors might say, "Yeah, but with our cloud solution, you don't need controllers" -- and they're right. But consider the tradeoff.

To configure the underlying LAN topology to support my 4,000 APs and the number of SSIDs and networks used in my complicated WiFi environment, I'd need to perform hundreds of thousands of VLAN-related switch configuration steps and do things I'd really rather not do with Layer 2. Or I'd need to completely redesign my network to be more L3-centric. In this regard, I'll keep my controllers for now, thank you. Yet I'd love to ditch all my local management servers, and if I had multiple campuses, I'd love to manage them all from the cloud.

Small environments of all types should give cloud WLAN serious consideration, and I believe the cloud is where the future of WiFi generally lies. However, we also need enterprise WLAN vendors to step up and fuse what's great about the cloud with the advantages of controller-based WLANs. Figure out how to manage them from the cloud, as well, with very little effort by the customer, and the cloud-managed WLAN picture becomes a lot more complete.