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Management System Diversity: “Manage WLANs from Anywhere Using Anything!”

April 2nd, 2014

So much competitive marketing noise has been made over the last half dozen years about managing WLANs that vendors are now trying to manage WLANs from anywhere using everything. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least to hear a vendor say that they can now manage a branch WLAN in France from the comfort of their kitchen’s refrigerator’s management widget. It has gotten downright silly. I thought I would recap just how diverse the WLAN management scene has become: first for a good laugh, and second as a reference for those newcomers to the Wi-Fi industry.

You may be thinking, “why are there so many ways to manage a Wi-Fi system?” There’s a variety of answers to that question, such as:

  • Cost
  • Differing use cases
  • Partner eco-system
  • User preference

Not every vendor provides each of the management methods described below, but rest assured that every vendor will tell you that you don’t need anything other than what they sell. Can I get an amen? Below, I have offered a visual reference of the seven prevalent methods of managing a Wi-Fi infrastructure. It’s important to note that I will not address Wi-Fi client management methodologies in this post.

WLAN-management-diversity

WNMS in a Virtual Machine (VM)

One of the most popular methods of deploying a true WNMS today is as a VM. It’s a low-cost, flexible, scalable option that is profitable, easily updated, and easily distributed for vendors (since it’s only software). Customers love it because almost every organization has a VM infrastructure these days. Those who don’t typically use…you guessed it…the cloud. VM-based WNMS systems are classified as true WNMS because they can manage multiple elements across multiple locations, they usually handle policy-based management, compliance/reporting, location services, configuration/monitoring, planning, and much more.

WNMS in an Appliance

A WNMS in an Appliance is simply WNMS software that has been installed onto an appropriately-chosen hardware platform by the vendor. A set of recommended specifications are then documented by the vendor that informs user about the maximum number of devices that should/can be managed with the platform. Sometimes the vendor security-hardens the platform as a value-add.

Wireless Network Management System (WNMS) in the Cloud

Cloud management is all the rage. In fact, if you’re a vendor and don’t offer it, I dare say that you’ve fallen dreadfully behind the times. Cloud management is especially appropriate for users with distributed environments, remote or home-based workers, and those who prefer an OPEX-based (subscription-based) payment strategy.

Do not confuse putting a hardware or software controller (or set of controllers) in a data center for cloud management. A cloud management system is a multi-tenant system whereby system resources can be allocated and provisioned to various customers leveraging economies of scale. A cloud system is flexible enough to grow when/where needed and is essentially unlimited in scale. Vendor marketing departments love to cause confusion around cloud offerings when their company does not offer cloud management as an option, so be sure to ask your vendor to explain what their cloud is and how it works.

The term Public Cloud means pretty much the same thing across all vendors who use the term, but the term Private Cloud has varying meanings across vendors. It’s for that reason that I wanted to clarify the two prevailing definitions for Private Cloud:

  • Definition #1: WNMS (Appliance or VM) in a private data center
  • Definition #2: Dedicated (versus the normal shared) server space within a cloud infrastructure

Customers should ask their vendors to clarify what they mean when they use the term Private Cloud.

Application-based Management

Some vendors have chosen to put their configuration interface into an application, and these applications are now beginning to show up on mobile platforms (e.g. iPad). Application-based management software for mobile platforms is often a subset of the desktop version or controller-based management interface and is meant to offer the user an exceptionally good experience. Mobile applications are renowned for their simplicity, beauty, and flexibility. These applications are heavily focused on configuration, and are likely to have very little in the way of monitoring, reporting, location services, planning, etc.

Such management applications tend to be element managers rather than policy-based management systems, and are often not sophisticated. Their benefit lies in their simplicity and flexibility.

Controller-based Management

The reason that I don’t give controller-based management the moniker of WNMS is that controllers were never designed for full-scale management. You can think of the CLI or GUI within a controller as being designed in the original likeness of an autonomous AP. Autonomous APs had (and still have) an integrated GUI (and some had a CLI) designed primarily for configuration. While configuration is part of management, autonomous AP GUIs/CLIs had few monitoring, reporting, planning, mapping, or other management functions within the interface. Likewise, when the industry moved to controllers and controller-based APs, the controller became the original point of configuration.

While a reasonable amount of monitoring sophistication has been added to controllers over the years, controller-based management is still element-based (meaning that it only monitors itself) and contains almost none of the common enterprise-class, large-scale WNMS features.

Controller-in-Software Management

Yes, vendors actually do this. The make a software controller and run it as an application or within a VM. Either way, it acts exactly like a controller appliance and has all of the management shortcomings thereof. However, it may be offered to customers at no charge, which is a strong benefit. You still have to consider the cost of the hardware that the software must be installed onto, but that could well be a sunk cost already or minimal because it’s a set of shared commodity hardware within your data center. A saving grace of this approach is that with it being a pure software play, it’s possible for such platforms to morph more quickly into a true WNMS.

Master Access Point (AP) based Management

We have seen systems come and go over the years that sported this feature. Some vendors have installed the feature and then taken it back out again because they felt like it took away from their ability to sell other types of management (e.g. cloud). Managing a set of APs via a single Master AP can be very simple, free, and yet is always scale-limited by design. Depending on the vendor, this choice can be feature-rich or feature-poor, but it’s often great for small mid-market customers who have a single location or have a qualified administrator at each location.

Like Controller-based Management, the interface found in Master APs is usually highly geared toward configuration. There may be some modest amount of monitoring capability, but it’s not comparable to a WNMS. Further, other WNMS important features such as reporting, location services, and planning are missing. It’s for these reasons that I do not call this form of management a WNMS.

Summary

There are just so many….take your pick(s). Some are free. Some are crazy-expensive. Some are CAPEX-based, and some are OPEX-based. Most vendors offer at least two methods of managing their Wi-Fi infrastructure, and some vendors purposefully don’t offer specific types of management interfaces out of fear that it will cannibalize certain others that they sell. Some vendors go all-out and provide everything with the hope that their flexibility will win out in the end. There’s probably no best approach, so you should decide for yourself.

When you get into today’s frequently-overheard conversation about unified wired/wireless management (among the large campus enterprise vendors) the proper choice of WNMS becomes even more important. Should you go with a single-vendor or multi-vendor system? Some vendors have used multi-vendor WNMSs to woo customers away from their competitors over the years, and the strategy has worked remarkably well in some cases.

I could go on and on about management systems, but I think that gives you a good primer. What are your thoughts?

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