Manage Your WLAN from the Cloud

Instead of organizations having to purchase, set up and maintain back-end servers, cloud-based WLAN management services offer hosted access that's cost effective and requires no installation.

By Eric Geier | Posted Feb 11, 2010
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Like other areas of IT, we're seeing more wireless LAN management solutions rise to the cloud. Instead of organizations having to purchase, set up and maintain the back-end servers, cloud-based services offer hosted access that's cost effective and requires no installation or support by the organization. These Web-based services can be especially useful for organizations that have multiple locations, a small IT team, or a limited budget.

In this article, we're going to look at three different cloud-based WLAN management platforms. We'll discuss each vendor's overall solution and how its hosted platform ties into it. We'll also take a peek at the Web interfaces and compare features. Let's get started!

Meraki

The first vendor up is Meraki, pronounced may-rah-kee, backed by companies such as Google. Meraki offers solutions for two different markets: the enterprise private network and the public network or hotspot arenas. Not only does it offer a custom cloud-based service tailored for each, but a whole hardware set as well. Its cloud-based WLAN management platforms are actually only for use with its own wireless mesh hardware and access points.

Its cloud service doesn't just provide traditional WLAN management, but an entire operating system. It serves as the wireless controller for the Wi-Fi network. The Meraki OS provides the brains for the mesh networking and dynamic channel optimization, virtual network isolation, captive portal, and other network functionality. You can login to the cloud controller through your Web browser.

Figure 1 shows an example of the Web interface.

Figure 1: Meraki's Web interface. Click for a larger image.All the Meraki APs can be configured through the cloud controller, including SSID profiles, security settings, and other network functionality. The controller can also serve as a directory service for network authentication.

The monitoring features include bandwidth graphs, network maps, and health checks. There are a few test tools integrated into the interface, such as ping and throughput utilities. Other troubleshooting features include quick searching of user and device details.

The Enterprise service costs $150 for a 1 year license per access point, or $300 for 3 years. This is addition to cost of the enterprise-class access points, running from $600 to $1,500 apiece. The Pro service, targeted for public networks, is actually free when you purchase its Pro-class access points, running from $150 to $800 apiece.

AirWave

Unlike Meraki and Aerohive (which we'll discuss next), AirWave provides a cloud-based WLAN management system for multi-vendor networks. Plus it also covers the wired side too. Products from 15 different vendors are supported, from fat to thin APs and from old 802.11b to new 802.11n devices.

Given that AirWave is a division of Aruba Networks, you'll see some preference of its products over other vendors. However, you'll still see multi-vendor support for features like central firmware management. You should recognize though that this system isn't designed to replace the network controller and can't push all the network settings to the APs and other infrastructure devices.

Figure 2 shows an example of AirWave's Management Platform.

Figure 2: AirWave's Management Platform. Click for a larger image. The monitoring features of the include bandwidth graphs, misconfiguration detection, and rouge detection with the RAPIDS module. For troubleshooting it offers quick user and device searching from a field displayed globally on the Web interface. It also offers a great amount of hardware and network details, giving you the tools to help pinpoint issues. It even integrates into the Remedy help desk application.

The VisualRF module offers a graphic representation of the network, including points for end-users and the network infrastructure. A heat-map type of view can show real-time estimates of signals and data rates. This can identify the bad and good spots of the Wi-Fi network.

The cloud-based service, called AirWave OnDemand, runs for $100 per device each year or $250 for three years. Licensing fees for running your own server start at $4,995 for 50 devices.

Aerohive

Like Meraki, Aerohive has developed its own proprietary software and hardware solution. The Aerohive solution rests on the idea of a controller-less but centrally manageable wireless mesh network. They say this gives you the benefits of both worlds: autonomous and controller-based topologies.

In addition to the cloud-based HiveManager Online service, they offer virtual and hardware appliance options for its management software.

See Figure 3 for an example of the HiveManager's Web interface.

Figure 3: Aerohive's Web Interface. Click for a larger image. Like Meraki, you must use its product-line of APs, named HiveAPs. However, like Meraki, this means you can push all the wireless and network settings to the HiveAPs right from the Web browser with Aerohive's HiveManager NMS.

There are two different modes of the HiveManager: Express and Enterprise. The Express mode provides a streamlined interface for simpler networks. The Enterprise mode displays the details and information in a matter best for larger, more complex, networks.

Its monitoring features let you view the real-time details of HiveAPs and any rogue APs that are detected. You can also check on authorized and rogue client connections. Plus there's a site survey tool so you can check Wi-Fi signals remotely.

The configuration tools let you set all HiveAPs settings. The configuration scheme includes user profiles, SSID profiles, and WLAN policies. You can also configure the integrated RADIUS authentication server, captive portal, and certificates.

The HiveManager also provides a few tools, such as a coverage planning tool, client monitor, VLAN probe, remote packet analyzer, and a HiveAP simulator.

There's more

Remember, there are many more WLAN solutions out there. We covered just a few. When comparing, you might choose Meraki for its simplicity, AirWave for the multi-vendor support and troubleshooting functionality, or Aerohive for its innovative design.

Eric Geier is the author of many networking and computing books, including Home Networking All-in-One Desk Reference For Dummies (Wiley 2008) and 100 Things You Need to Know about Microsoft Windows Vista (Que 2007).

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