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Does WLAN Management Really Need To Be In The Cloud?

After talking with vendors over the past year, I can't say I am completely on board with the notion of WLAN management tools as a software as a service (SaaS).  The premise of cloud management is simple: instead of deploying yet another server in the data center, redirect the enterprise wireless controllers and access points at a vendor-hosted solution. WLAN management services have all the trappings of the current cloud hype.

Vendors are quick to cite their ability to scale to any size of WLAN deployment, as well as the now common operational expense vs. capital expense debate. On the flip side, however, a cloud model for wireless network control takes some wind out of the idea of a truly unified network, where wired and wireless networks share a consistent set of policies through a central command platform. While my thoughts on a hosted WLAN are still evolving, there are still a couple of use cases where a cloud-based or hosted management platform could be a viable alternative to an appliance or server-based solution.

For instance, service providers could definitely take advantage of the hosted WLAN management when handling wireless deployments for their customers. Cloud-based services would not only simplify the management of their customer's networks, but would also lower the footprint of these deployments on the customer premise. In addition, retailers with a network reach of hundreds, if not thousands of stores, could certainly justify moving control to a host data center, and more importantly, leverage a vendor's bandwidth for the management traffic of remote wireless networks deployed within stores.  

The wireless enterprise is another possible target. There is a small but growing subset of enterprises that are using WiFi as the only means of access for clients. While switching gear in and to the data center is still an issue, the intelligence of the network edge is on the WLAN and not the network.  In this type of environment, where the wired network is nearly a carrier for the wireless, enterprises could realize the OpEx benefits.

In the current economic client, corporate acquisitions and mergers are all too frequent, leaving IT to contend with a multitude of varying infrastructure components from any number of vendors.  To deal with the multi-vendor hell that could erupt in this type of environment, an IT manager could turn to a vendor-agnostic hosted management solution, even if on a temporary basis, while it transitions the newly acquired company to its standard architecture. So while this might not be an all-inclusive list, it is clear that there is a place for the cloud in the WLAN infrastructure. Whether it fits in your particular environment ultimately depends not only on how far flung your network spans, but what your budgets will allow.