Another Evolutionary Shift in Enterprise WiFi Management

Andrew Froehlich, Network Engineer & IT Consultant | 12/6/2012 | 7 comments

Andrew Froehlich
WiFi in the enterprise has gone through two major shifts so far in its evolutionary lifespan, and it is about to go through a third -- a move to the cloud.

When WiFi first started to take a foothold in enterprise networks, the goal for the business was to provide a way for people to connect in high-traffic areas without the need to have physical wires. The solution was to place WiFi access points in targeted areas, such as conference rooms, lunch areas, and meeting halls.

The next shift occurred when desktops were abandoned in favor of laptops with built-in WiFi cards. Mobile workers became much more prevalent and demand for WiFi everywhere was the new norm. Companies trying to manage autonomous access points soon discovered that it can be a management nightmare to support hundreds, if not thousands of independent WiFi hotspots. Additionally, wireless coverage fine-tuning was really tricky because each access point had no knowledge of the other and had no built-in intelligence to communicate and fine-tune WiFi settings with neighboring access points.

A controller-based wireless appliance put an end to all that trouble. Using a wireless controller, an IT manager had the power to centrally manage all aspects of their wireless access points from software updates to power/channel adjustments. The controller-based model continues to be the most popular management method in the enterprise today.

But we may be on the cusp of yet another evolutionary shift in enterprise WiFi as network administrators weigh the pros and cons of moving controllers into the cloud. A company called Meraki got the ball rolling by offering customers a cloud-based management solution that makes it a snap to provision new WiFi access points and adds a host of bells and whistles in terms of wireless monitoring that network administrators and CIOs seem to love. And yes, this solution is fully PCI-compliant.

Small and midsized companies quickly warmed up to the cloud-controller model because it was one less hardware appliance they had to maintain and it allowed for very robust WiFi networks to be deployed without the need for a highly-skilled wireless administrator.

Now that Meraki was recently purchased by Cisco Systems, look for Cisco to start pushing cloud-controlled WiFi to larger companies and enterprises. According to a recent interview with Sujai Hajela, vice president and general manager of Cisco's Enterprise Wireless Networking Group: "Customers can get a switch, router, a WLAN, a controller, and just plug it into the Internet. That device 'phones home' to the Meraki cloud, and boom! It's there. It's very simple to deploy: We're talking minutes."

But while cloud-based wireless controller management architecture does have significant ease-of-use benefits, there are definite trade-offs, including:

  • More expensive ongoing support contracts -- essentially you are renting the controllers that live in the cloud.

  • Heavy reliance on Internet access -- no Internet means no way to manage.

  • Concern over security risks -- a great deal of information can be gleaned if the cloud is compromised.

  • Loss of software control -- software is pushed from the cloud to all APs, making testing and feature validation more difficult.

The future of enterprise WiFi management may be the cloud, but don't expect it any time soon. Network administrators in the enterprise value the amount of control they have over their networks, and they are likely to put up a fight to keep that control in-house as opposed to in the cloud. So for now, let cloud-based WiFi management mature a bit more before you decide to make the next evolutionary leap, but keep an eye on it.

View Comments: Newest First | Oldest First | Threaded View
batye   Another Evolutionary Shift in Enterprise WiFi Management   1/1/2013 11:22:31 PM
Re: I Just
Rich - each joke have part of the truth... my worries if Kaspersky design secure OS with close co-operation by Russian KGB/FSB...
everyone started using it... and just imagine comrade your power where you could access any computer anywhere in the world running Kaspersky secure OS... :) lol...
David Wagner   Another Evolutionary Shift in Enterprise WiFi Management   12/7/2012 12:26:28 PM
Re: I Just
@Andrew- Ahh, right. That makes sense.
Andrew Froehlich   Another Evolutionary Shift in Enterprise WiFi Management   12/7/2012 9:08:33 AM
Re: I Just
@Dave, one big benefit is the fact that you can provision your wireless network without geographic restrictions.  In today's in-house controller architecture, you can provision wireless access points within the protected network.  But, new remote sites either require a separate controller at the site -- or poking holes through the firewall to allow access.  But in a cloud-controller situation, as long as you have access to the Internet, you can provision and control access points anywhere in the world with virtually no changes needed to your protected network.
User Ranking: Blogger
David Wagner   Another Evolutionary Shift in Enterprise WiFi Management   12/6/2012 5:38:56 PM
Re: I Just
Andrew- One thing I can't seem to figure out-- what is the difference btween managing this in the cloud versus in-house? It is still the same management tool, right? What gives the cloud the advantage here?
Rich Krajewski   Another Evolutionary Shift in Enterprise WiFi Management   12/6/2012 3:32:27 PM
Re: I Just
Data theft? The biggest operating system, Windows, is designed to give your data away.
Hammad Masood   Another Evolutionary Shift in Enterprise WiFi Management   12/6/2012 3:27:03 PM
Re: I Just
I think security will always be the biggest question mark on this. This solution brings lot of convenience but no one will want to comprise for data theft .
Rich Krajewski   Another Evolutionary Shift in Enterprise WiFi Management   12/6/2012 11:23:57 AM
I Just
I just try to figure out what will cost people and companies less, and expect that to happen (unless it involves nepotism, then expect the costs to go up).


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