Meraki Controls WLANs From The Cloud

Wireless vendor replaces a costly premises WLAN controller with a hosted alternative

August 28, 2009

5 Min Read
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Meraki's new Enterprise Cloud Controller challenges the standard thin wireless model espoused by Aruba, Cisco, Meru and others by moving controller functions into the cloud. The goal is to reduce the cost of enterprise-class wireless by taking the price of an expensive controller layer out of the equation.

Where typical controllers sit in a company's server room in the form of specialized chassis switch blades or self-contained appliances, Meraki's Cloud Controller requires no space or power. In addition, controllers can be very complicated to set up: The more wireless networks in the air combined with security configurations, frequent code patches, and integration with credential stores, the more time and expertise is required. Meraki strives to simplify via a straightforward configuration GUI and no requirement for customers to maintain the controller itself.

WLAN In The Clouds

Meraki has constructed a wireless system that requires customers to purchase only access points. The controller piece is very much present, but it resides in Meraki's multiple redundant data centers. Access points from Meraki's extensive product line simply plug into your local network, find their way to the Internet for system control, and join the Cloud Controller over an AES-encrypted secure tunnel. All local user and network traffic stays on your network, while the small amount of control traffic required goes to the Cloud Controller. Because network traffic (other than AP control data) stays local to your, Meraki's Cloud Controller model should not raise security concerns. And if the cloud controller should become unreachable for whatever reason, all local functionality hums along nicely.

Meraki provided three MR-14 802.11n access points for testing. I connected two of them in my home office--one using mesh--and the other at my office on Syracuse University, 17 miles away. All three came up quickly and reliably, and found the Cloud Controller by the time I could point my Internet browser to the Dashboard application used for configuration and monitoring. I was able to quickly configure a few WLANs, and within minutes had a secure, 802.1x-based WLAN, an open portal-based visitor WLAN, and a WEP-based WLAN up and functional. Import some floor plans and add a few clients, and viola: Enterprise-class wireless is brought to life without ever physically touching a controller.

The Nitty-GrittyOverall, I was impressed with the Meraki Enterprise Cloud Controller's ability to keep a fairly complex WLAN environment functional at multiple sites. At first pass, everything you'd expect is in the sauce; Meraki auto-manages the RF environment to avoid channel contention and interference. Scalability is pretty good, with hundreds of WLANs possible, each with as many as 1,000 APs, and a strategy for when you need to grow even larger. Easy-to-configure guest portals and walled gardens are a few clicks away. Banning problematic clients is simple. User rate limiting per WLAN, and even some content filtering are possible. The feature list is long, and Meraki's intuitive, uncluttered dashboard makes you forget that you didn't rack a controller or configure an elaborate management system as part of system build.

That said, if you are used to managing a large, complex wireless network, you may find some things missing. Meraki chose to hide some functionality from customers, which makes for a tidy interface but also leads to frustration at times. For example, I wanted to disable 1 Mbps and 2 Mbps data rates on my networks, but no option to do so is obviously available. I also set out to configure 64-bit WEP to see what the key entry felt like, but Meraki allows for only 128-bit WEP in the configuration dashboard. And at first pass it appears that you can't configure more than four SSIDs, which won't be enough for some environments.

It turns out you can do these things, but it requires a call to tech support, which will expose a configuration environment every bit as complex as the other guys. The technicians were friendly and knowledgeable, but it would be nice to have a jump-off to "Advanced Configurations" or some other path that didn't require invoking tech support.

Good And Bad

The Meraki Enterprise Cloud Controller-based wireless system performed as advertised. My wireless clients connected or roamed smoothly every time, with the expected throughput given individual WLAN setups and Internet connectivity (though I did not test the system's QoS capabilities).The cloud model means failover is assured should a controller go on the fritz, because the functionality resides in multiple geographically diverse data centers. And, you'll never needs to upgrade controller hardware--a real boon to those who must maintain dozens of these devices, each with hundreds of access points attached. Deployment is a snap as well; simply plug the order number into the dashboard, and watch your APs come to life when plugged in. And the prices--the MR-14 802.11n AP lists for $799, and a Cloud Controller License is priced at $300 per AP for three years--are a fraction of the cost of the competition.

There are tradeoffs with the Meraki model, however. For example, on most thin wireless systems, you need only a single VLAN to the AP switch port, and traffic for multiple SSIDs and networks is tunneled back to the controller in a lightweight wireless protocol. For the Meraki APs, each SSID/VLAN combination needs representation at the connected network switch port, making for a busier--and potentially more fragile--VLAN environment. Meraki 802.11n APs have transmitter and receiver counts of 2x2, while competitors offer 2X3 and 3X3. Rogue detection is nonexistent in the Meraki dashboard. Even if you don't go out and bust rogues, there is value in knowing what is present. On floor plans that reflect signal strengths between clients and access points, Meraki does not allow the administrator to add attenuation sources, like walls.

With those caveats in mind, Meraki's Cloud Controller is a no-brainer for small and multisite businesses, and a good choice for large environments with fairly static wireless needs. It works, and combined with Meraki's other wireless infrastructure offerings, including mesh links and solar-powered APs, affords a robust wireless framework at a discount price. For complex environments, however, Meraki may be able to deliver on the promise of lower TCO, but be aware of the trade-offs.

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