As the modern workforce has become more mobile, businesses of all sizes and shapes have started to rely more and more on WLAN networks, with many questioning whether the traditional Ethernet connection is still relevant. These all wireless offices are more agile to change and can adapt to the business changing needs more rapidly than wireline.
There is also a cultural shift towards businesses using cloud-based services as part of their digital transformation. Recent studies indicate that 93 percent of organizations use cloud-based IT services such as cloud storage and file sharing, Cloud computing/infrastructure as a service (IaaS), and cloud-based productivity suites. Wi-Fi is no exception to the shift towards the powerful cloud.
Since the introduction of Wi-Fi in 1997, wireless local area networks (WLANs) have undergone several architectural shifts. Starting with autonomous access points (APs), WLAN architectures have spanned through centralized controllers, hybrid controllers, cloud controllers, and, more recently, distributed control with cloud management. As more and more organizations are driven to cloud-managed Wi-Fi, it is important to understand the drivers and benefits of this new approach.
Historically, small organizations such as small and medium businesses with limited or no IT staff as well as distributed enterprises were the only natural candidates to move their WLAN architecture to the cloud. However, with the innovations and decreasing costs of unlimited processing power and data storage, the cloud has now become a viable alternative to on-premise controller WLAN architecture for larger institutions such as universities and large enterprises.
What does it mean to move Wi-Fi to the cloud?
At this point, it is helpful to define the concept of planes. Plane can be thought of a set of functions and information necessary for some aspect of a network. There are three planes discussed in networking: the control plane, the management plane, and the data plane.
As its name suggests, the management plane is responsible for network management. It includes functions such as WLAN configuration, WLAN monitoring and reporting, and WLAN firmware management. The control plane, on the other hand, defines the signaling information or what can be considered network intelligence. Functions of the control plane include RRM (Radio Resource Management), Dynamic RF, Roaming mechanisms, QoS, Load balancing, Band steering, Mesh protocols, and Application Visibility and Control. Lastly, the data plane (aka user plane) is the location in a network where user traffic is forwarded.
There are today two iterations of cloud-managed Wi-Fi:
- Control & management planes are in the cloud, ex: Cisco-Meraki while the data plane resides in the access point. This approach involves the risk of losing the ability to manage and control the access points if the connectivity is lost which may is unacceptable for most larger enterprises.
- Only the management plane is based in the cloud while control and data reside in the edge/access point. Companies such as Mojo Networks favor this approach because access points can continue to run even if connectivity is lost.
Benefits of Cloud-Managed Wi-Fi
With the introduction of distributed control, the cloud no longer offers a centralized controller representing a single point of failure, but rather a central dashboard for understanding and managing the network. There are many other benefits of cloud-managed Wi-Fi, including:
- Reduced CapEx and opex: Since management hardware is hosted by the cloud service provider, businesses no longer must invest upfront capital in building their networks. Instead, companies simply pay an annual or monthly subscription fee in a pay-per-use model. Additionally, dedicated IT staff need not be apportioned to network management.
- Less downtime: Organizations will experience less network downtime resulting from updates and upgrades to network infrastructure, as these services are handled by the cloud provider.
- Bring Your Own Device (BYOD): Cloud-managed Wi-Fi dramatically simplifies the possibility for employees to utilize their own mobile devices (BYOD), as well as work from home or on the road.
- Greater scalability: Because cloud-managed networks can handle an unlimited number of APs, cloud-managed Wi-Fi enables exceptionally agile wireless networks.
- Quicker deployment: With cloud-managed Wi-Fi, deploying a new or extended network is as easy as a few clicks, and as fast as a few minutes.
- Greater security: Moving to cloud Wi-Fi shifts the burden of network security from your organization to the cloud service provider, and as such, cloud providers are incentivized to offer the best possible security features. These include encryption, authentication, malware protection, data loss protection, firewalls, and more.
- Remote management: Since cloud services can be accessed from anywhere, the wireless network can be managed from on-site, from home, or from any other location with a wireless connection.
Because of these many benefits, there are numerous organizations that are now moving to cloud Wi-Fi. Distributed enterprises, large businesses, university campuses, or any organization with multiple sites and WLANs will benefit immensely from cloud-managed Wi-Fi, as would organizations with limited IT staff such as SMBs. Organizations that encourage BYOD or have elastic network requirements would similarly see advantages from switching to cloud-managed Wi-Fi. Lastly, any organizations with mission-critical network needs will benefit from the reliability of cloud-managed networks.
To learn more about the benefits of moving away from on-premise Wi-Fi controllers, please download the new white paper from Maravedis.