Mature cloud Wi-Fi offerings have gone through few phases already. They started with bare-bones device configuration from the cloud console and over the years matured into meaty management plane for complete Wi-Fi access, security and complementary services in the cloud.
Alongside these phases of evolution, optimizing the cost of operation of the cloud backend has always been important consideration. It is critical for cloud operators and Managed Service Providers (MSPs). This cost dictates what end users pay for cloud Wi-Fi services and whether attractive pricing models (like AirTight’s Opex-only model) can be viable in the long run. It is also important to the bottom line of the cloud operator/MSP.
Posed with the cost question, one would impulsively say that cost is driven by the capacity in terms of number of APs that can be managed from a staple of compute resource in the cloud. That is an important cost contributor, but not the only one!
In early days of cloud Wi-Fi, incumbents used to say that cloud Wi-Fi was just about moving traditional controller appliances to centralized data centers. As time progressed, it became clear that this was a gross mischaracterization of cloud Wi-Fi. In the first dimension, cloud Wi-Fi would differentiate from traditional architecture by decoupling the data plane from the control plane (also called “local switching”). However, this alone wasn’t adequate since tying the control plane to centralized controllers created an inefficient architecture. Accordingly, the second new dimension consisted in moving the control plane to the edge of the network (also referred to as “smart edge APs”).
There is also a third dimension where “true cloud Wi-Fi“ differentiates even further from the traditional architecture. This dimension is not easily visible to the end user, though it results in substantial differences in the operation efficiency of the cloud backend. Eventually, these efficiencies pass on to the end user either as cost savings or features. This third dimension is about how the Wi-Fi management plane is implemented in the cloud – this is the topic of this blog.
Wi-Fi architectures today come in three main flavors: controllers, controller-less and cloud. While vendors spar over which is the right architecture for today’s and tomorrow’s Wi-Fi, customers are mostly interested in comparing them based on their derived value.
In this blog post, we examine the economics, manageability and ease of deployment of these 3 architecture flavors. On these fronts, I have often seen the following 8 points to be most relevant to customers while making architecture choice for their Wi-Fi project.
In the following discussion, I use the term controller to indicate an architecture which uses a tunneled or locally switched data plane, but where the control plan is driven wholly or partially from the controller. Controller-less architecture is smart-edge architecture where the control plane resides at the edge. Cloud is controller-less, and in addition, provides manageability from a console hosted in the cloud.
Cloud computing, WiFi Access
-Did you know that all cloud Wi-Fi’s aren’t created equal?
The race is on to put cloud in Wi-Fi
Currently, the cloud managed Wi-Fi space is expanding rapidly. Naturally, Wi-Fi vendors, traditional and emerging, want to be in the cloud Wi-Fi game. Nobody wants to be without a “cloud” solution! Controller-less Wi-Fi vendors have explicitly built cloud managed Wi-Fi from the ground up, while controller Wi-Fi incumbents have repositioned traditional offerings in the direction of cloud Wi-Fi.
The word “cloud” in the name doesn’t tell the whole story, one has to dig deeper. Here’s why.
When vendors associate the word cloud with their Wi-Fi solutions, they can be referring to completely different things. This is quite apparent in light of some recent developments.
As Wi-Fi deployments extend into large distributed environments, management of these Wi-Fi networks poses unique challenges. It could be the clinic-wide deployment for the medical facility running into 100’s of sites, branch-wide deployment for the bank running into 1000’s of sites, or store-wide deployment for the fast food restaurant running into 10,000’s sites. The network and security management needs for such deployments are very different from the traditional campus Wi-Fi. Accordingly, the network management console has to deliver on a number of fronts. Read more…
Barely two weeks after I posted my last blog discussing benefits of the true cloud Wi-Fi over the controller over WAN architecture using Cisco FlexConnect as example for the latter; news of Cisco acquiring Meraki broke out. I got a kick out of it since it showed that my inferences on Cisco FlexConnect and other controller centric offerings were dead on spot, that they can never become real cloud Wi-Fi by incremental touchups and jargon experimentation. I also got a kick out of its timing — 1.2B acquisition barely 2 weeks after I wrote that post! There are several takeaways for the future of cloud Wi-Fi from this big event. First and most obvious is that the cloud Wi-Fi market is expanding rapidly. Another takeaway is that for the vendors already committed to the controller centric WLAN architecture, migration to cloud architecture is not incremental, but it is disruptive. Cisco could not do the migration in-house even after trying for few years with incremental changes like REAP, H-REAP, ELM, and FlexConnect. As I said in my last blog, cloud Wi-Fi is not about throwing controller over WAN, but is needs to be architected differently from the bottoms up. Finally, it also shows that with the standardization of access point platforms, differentiation in mainstream enterprise Wi-Fi will come from innovations in the application space such as network management, security, and integration with other services.
AirTight envisioned value of the cloud managed Wi-Fi solutions way back in 2008; when it was the first to launch wireless intrusion prevention (WIPS) and wireless PCI compliance solutions from the cloud (cloud used to be called SaaS at that time). It saw wholehearted acceptance from customers for Wi-Fi security and compliance applications. Having seen the benefits of the cloud Wi-Fi security offering, those same customers then wanted Wi-Fi access bundled with security in the AirTight cloud offering and AirTight answered their call in 2010. AirTight’s cloud managed Wi-Fi access with built in PCI compliance, saw tremendous success in the market. Riding on this second wave of success in the cloud strategy, AirTight then launched cloud managed enterprise grade Wi-Fi access with its highly acclaimed, absolute best-in-class WIPS buit into it.
Due to strong security posture, extreme scalability, and unique management capabilities, AirTight Cloud Services™ are not just for the midmarket, but also fit very well into scale many times as big. No wonder, organizations even as large as multiple 10,000’s distributed locations have selected AirTight cloud Wi-Fi over all competing Wi-Fi solutions! I am excited to see the cloud Wi-Fi market ignited by Cisco right at the time when AirTight has reached great level of maturity on its cloud Wi-Fi offerings over all these years.
With rising popularity of the cloud Wi-Fi in the distributed Wi-Fi deployments, there is also an attempt to pass off the legacy controller technology as the cloud Wi-Fi by deploying conventional controllers over the WAN. Realizing that it is infeasible to deploy many smaller controllers in the distributed Wi-Fi deployments such as retail, remote offices, etc., the controller over WAN architecture deploys bigger controllers at the HQ and calls it a cloud Wi-Fi. However, the controller over WAN Wi-Fi does not measure up to the true cloud Wi-Fi for many reasons as outlined below. We will use example of Cisco’s controller over WAN architecture to illustrate these differences. Earlier, Cisco called it H-REAP and ELM, now it calls it FlexConnect, but does changing terminology get controllers to measure up to the true cloud? Let us find out. Read more…
Controller based WiFi architectures have been the standard for some time, but the advantages of the cloud appear to be a perfect fit for deploying a scalable, and more importantly, manageable WiFi infrastructure. Cloud based solutions are intended to drastically reduce the cost and complexity of delivering an enterprise solution. And WiFi should be no exception.
By now, you have discovered CFO’s like cloud computing. IT solutions that can be purchase as a cloud solution eliminate up front capital expenditures, depreciation, and product obsolescence.
Cloud solutions improve cash management because there is no need to write a big check all up front. Paying only for the capabilities you need, lowers your organizations financial risk. And the recurring (often monthly) operational costs of cloud based solutions provide easy to forecast and budget IT expenditures. Lastly, because deployment time and on-going operational overhead can be recognzed in weeks not months, results are easier to measure.
If you are considering a new WiFi deployment or are ready for a refresh, take a look at this video to see how AirTight’s Cloud Services can help.