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.