WIRELESS INFRASTRUCTURE

  • 03/17/2016
    6:30 AM
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More Cloud-Managed WiFi Choices For SMBs

A growing number of vendors offer affordable alternatives for cloud-managed wireless networking.

Cloud-managed networking is hardly news these days, but those of us in the enterprise wireless space may not be aware of how deep an impact the cloud is having on the SMB end of the WLAN spectrum. Small businesses have the many of the same concerns and WLAN requirements that large environments do, but often lack sufficient budget and IT talent to address them. Cloud-managed WiFi can simplify WLAN management, and a growing number of vendors offer services tailored for the SMB with a wide range of feature sets and pricing options.

In my own branch locations where we don’t have legitimate network staff on hand, cloud-managed WiFi has been the key to operational success. The ability to manage my remote sites through a single web portal with minimal hardware and a network management server that is the cloud-vendor’s problem has greatly expanded my reach and lowered my administrative overhead.

Many of my branches are very small, and I use Meraki for end-to-end networking just like I do in my larger branches; this includes the security appliance with site-to-site VPN back to my central network, Ethernet switching, and wireless access points. It’s not cheap, but it is powerful. By using a high-end cloud WiFi solution in my smaller branches, I can really appreciate what the new crop of low-end SMB  cloud-managed players are doing. Let’s look at a few of them.

With use cases ranging from retail shops to medical waiting rooms, Sputnik is the classic model of captive-portal guest WiFi, where users click through after stopping at a webpage set up per business requirements. Beyond simple client access, Sputnik lets you choose whether visitors have truly free access or are monetized by being charged or using their social login data for marketing.

There are a lot of permutations to how you can shape the guest experience with Sputnik, and its hardware line includes a variety of Ubiquiti WiFi products that work in pretty much any indoor or outdoor application you might need. You can either purchase Sputnik-enabled gear, or use your own hardware with the Sputnik Agent Firmware. Ubiquiti has its own loyal SMB following, and Sputnik adds really interesting cloud capabilities.

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Open Mesh  also a solid cloud-enabled SMB offering with a very “Meraki-like” user interface (the resemblance is actually startling). The same overall feature set that Sputnik offers is available in Open Mesh, but one interesting differentiator is Open Mesh’s modular approach to access point hardware. You match your desired access point radio with an indoor or outdoor enclosure, and create your solution from Open Mesh’s own building blocks. With a low-end 11n access point that costs $75 to a top-end 11ac model at $225, Open Mesh paints its TCO as a fraction of Meraki’s when you add free non-expiring dashboard access.

Then there’s Cucumber Tony.  This UK-based cloud-managed WiFi company is different in a couple of ways beyond just having a funny name. It has extremely competitive pricing plans for a robust feature sets that scale up to multi-site “enterprise,” though many SMBs could live forever on the free tier and do quite well. Cucumber Tony also supports its own OpenWrt-based firmware on hardware from a range of vendors including Ubiquiti, Open Mesh, and even Meraki.

Like Sputnik and Open Mesh, Cucumber Tony’s WiFi combines decent WLAN management (power, channel, alerting, reporting, etc.) with “white-box” guest access that is highly customizable per site, including self-branding of the user portal.

There are more cloud-managed SMB WiFi options, but these three vendors provide a taste of the variety of offerings and the range of features now available to those shopping for affordable WiFi solutions.

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