Cloud Wi-Fi Could Become Key for Network Management

The ability to manage network infrastructure from the cloud is likely to be a key technology for networking hardware vendors in coming years.

That certainly seems to be the thinking behind Cisco’s $1.2 billion acquisition of Meraki, a vendor of cloud-managed Wi-Fi equipment. Cisco was in danger of being left behind in this space by companies such as Meraki and Aerohive Networks.

Why is cloud management such a big deal? A key reason is that the rise in popularity of smartphones and tablets, combined with enterprise Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) programs, has sent the demand for enterprise Wi-Fi connectivity in many organizations through the roof.  “BYOD has dramatically increased the complexity in managing WLAN infrastructure,” explains Chris DePuy, an analyst at Dell’Oro Group.

Many wireless networks are managed using a server-based management system and a controller. But while these systems work well in large enterprise environments with local IT staff, they are less suited to distributed businesses such as retail chains with a very large number of small sites or for smaller organizations that rely on outside IT help – especially if they have more than one site. “Branch sites, K-12 and small/medium-sized businesses seem the best targets for a cloud-managed Wi-Fi system today,” says DePuy.

It is of course possible to use a server-based system and connect branch offices and remote sites by VPN so that the system can manage remote access points, but these systems can be difficult and unreliable, especially if no local IT staff are available.

Joel Vincent, Aerohive’s product marketing director, says its cloud management solution appeals to customers that are already using cloud-based applications and are therefore comfortable managing their WLANs from the cloud. “Our customers see this as a way of deploying access points easily, and ensuring that they have consistent policies at all of their sites, which can be important for compliance purposes,” he says.

So how does cloud management work? The first step is for a company to establish an account on a vendor’s management system and configure default settings for any access points it buys. Then when the company buys a new access point from the vendor, the hardware serial number is associated with the company’s cloud management account by the vendor. It can then be shipped directly to a customer’s branch site or small office, with simple instructions enabling non-technical staff such as a receptionist or shop manager to plug the device in to a local router or switch and power it up. The access point connects to the cloud, enrolls itself on the cloud-based management system and downloads the company’s default configuration settings.

From that point on, the access point appears in the cloud-based management system with all the other hardware already under management. Administrators (including outsourced IT staff) can access the system from a browser, and each access point’s configuration can then be fine-tuned to suit the needs of its particular location.

Cloud Management Features Vary

When it comes to functionality, cloud management systems may offer a very wide range of management features. For example, using Meraki’s system the location of each access point can be integrated with building floor plans and with Google Maps, enabling administrators to keep track of exactly where they are.  A traffic light system shows each access point in green, yellow or red, depending on its overall “health.”

An administrator can therefore easily spot a problem access point at a site anywhere in the world, and then drill down to that piece of hardware to see who is connected to it or to view a pie chart of the applications responsible for traffic running through it. From there the administrator can take action to fix the problem.  This could include configuring traffic shaping or restrictions for the access point, perhaps limiting YouTube to a maximum of 10% of the total bandwidth, or, by integrating with an authentication system, preventing anyone from accessing YouTube at all unless they are in certain pre-defined groups like Senior Management or Sales.

Aerohive is slightly different from Meraki in that its access points can be managed using software running on a local server, or using its cloud-based HiveManager Online management system. (The company’s access points came on to the market before the cloud management system was launched, but today about 70% of new customers use HiveManager Online rather than the on-premises server based system, according to Vincent. )

Like Meraki’s, Aerohive’s system allows  for identity- and policy-based controls (for example: “the CIO gets full Internet access and bandwidth, the New York office can’t access the Internet after 9 p.m.”) but the feature sets are not identical: packet shaping, for example, is not yet available in HiveManger Online.

Pricing – and Cisco’s Ambitions

In terms of cost, both company’s products have two components to their pricing: a hardware cost, and an annual subscription for the cloud management service as well as support. A three-year subscription amounts to about half of the initial hardware cost.

Meraki and Aerohive’s published prices (including cloud management subscriptions) are both below the list price for an equivalent centrally managed Cisco WLAN. That’s perhaps not surprising – the access points themselves use fairly standard componentry and Cisco’s hardware traditionally commands a premium price. (In fact Aerohive’s Vincent says his company’s products do have some hardware smarts: they use unusually powerful radios and high receive sensitivity to cope with the low power of the transceivers in many consumer devices such as iPads.)

The trade-off of using a cloud-managed WLAN is that it has to be managed separately to any existing wired LAN from other vendors such as Cisco. Meraki solution architect Pablo Estrada says that this has not been a roadblock to sales so far – and this is borne out by the fact that the company has over 10,000 customers.  And Aerohive’s Joel Vincent claims that customers are actually quite happy to manage their LANS and their WLANs separately using different vendors’ management systems.

But with Cisco’s acquisition of Meraki that could all change. Estrada says that Meraki will become part of a new Cisco Cloud Networking Group, and the intention is likely to be to bring cloud management to existing or new Cisco wired and wireless networking products, according to Dell’Oro’s DePuy. “Cisco has expressed a corporate goal of increasing services and software, and Meraki’s service covers not only WLAN but other wired products that compete with Cisco’s,” he pointed out.

That would suggest the prospect of a complete Cisco networking infrastructure that can be managed simply from the cloud using Meraki’s management system – something that is sure to be of interest to many distributed businesses. The only potential drawback is that if it’s made by Cisco, prices are unlikely to be at the premium end of the market.

Paul Rubens
Paul Rubens
Paul Rubens is a technology journalist specializing in enterprise networking, security, storage, and virtualization. He has worked for international publications including The Financial Times, BBC, and The Economist, and is now based near Oxford, U.K. When not writing about technology Paul can usually be found playing or restoring pinball machines.

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