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BLOG: Wi-fi forecast: cloudy with a chance of showers

Louis Au | Jan. 3, 2013
Cloud computing is the new rage in the wireless world. But will it really fix your wi-fi problems?

Wireless architectures are undergoing an identity crisis.

With the increased performance and reliability, wi-fi technology and capabilities are changing quickly, causing significant disparity in WLAN architectures and implementation models.

These shifts are causing customers and vendors to reassess network management, monitoring, system control, and optimisation of WLAN (wireless local area network) systems that are compatible with their specific needs.

In this state of flux, organisations are asking similar architectural questions to find the best way(s) to deliver a wireless LAN:

•    Controller or no controller?
•    Hardware, virtual, or cloud controller?
•    Central or distributed data flow?
•    Cloud or no cloud?
•    Public or private cloud?

Clouding the architectural wireless LANscape

Cloud computing is beginning to play a part in the wi-fi architecture debate, because it offers highly scalable capabilities that are difficult or expensive to deliver locally. The central business benefit to cloud networking is that a business of any size can now have access to an enterprise-class wireless solution that won’t overwhelm the IT staff or break the IT budget.

As wi-fi becomes a primary access method and mobile devices widely used, businesses want to make smarter, more strategic decisions about how the network is being used and how it could and should be used as a revenue opportunity or to optimise employee productivity.

But to make those decisions, businesses need a lot of wi-fi usage data, which a cloud infrastructure can help store and analyse for trend assessment, analytics, and reporting. When paired with elegant management, search, and monitoring tools, a cloud architecture can offer big value to businesses in a relatively inexpensive package.

Clouds—whether private or public—are being adopted in many business environments. Distributed organisations see value in cloud wi-fi. However, as WLAN evolves and becomes more complex, businesses increasingly find it more difficult and expensive to acquire in-house wi-fi expertise. They may have to look to managed service providers (MSPs) to provide the expertise to simplify the deployment and management of the cloud WLAN with easy-to-access remote management, monitoring, reporting, and troubleshooting.

Two types of cloud WLAN

Today, two primary cloud models are being espoused: (1) customer-owned [private] and (2) supplier-hosted [public].

Private clouds are attractive because businesses own the liability of customer and employee data. Many large enterprises that already have significant data centre investments prefer this model. They deliver a centralised data centre where services and management are accessed from remote sites via VPNs and offer high-capacity centralised WLAN controller that supports “remote” or “flex” AP models. However, they can lack some of the scale, resiliency, and cost advantages of public cloud options.

Public clouds are generally more attractive for smaller businesses. Someone else designs and runs the data centre, accepts the complexity, secures the information, provides high capacity/redundancy, and pays the power bill. The business buys APs, signs up for a service, configures them through a simple Web interface and can remotely monitor and manage the WLAN from anywhere. This changes the traditional WLAN model. The wireless LAN becomes a purchased service.

When it rains, it pours

Despite the attractiveness of cloud wi-fi, hurdles to adoption remain. For example, not all businesses are willing or able to turn over their infrastructure to a third-party cloud provider. Businesses have reservations about the privacy and control aspects of hosted solutions, while others simply don’t buy the pricing ownership model—the perception is that cloud is akin to a rental model with less control and higher costs over time.
Second, cloud wi-fi architectures either decentralise controller functions (controller-less) or they move the controller into the cloud. In some environments, this can be a plus because it removes controller hardware at each site. However, without hardware controller, solutions such as gateway, concentrator or some tunnel termination device may be needed to provide centralised control functions at each site like data tunnelling and roaming across subnet boundaries.

However, for most customers, how and where system control is performed (distributed, centralised, or cloud) is not as important as how well system control works. Enterprises want choices, flexibility, and most importantly, they want meaningful solutions for their business. Cloud or no cloud, architectural boundaries are becoming less clear.

Finally, a public cloud controller/management solution offers the reliability and redundancy benefits of cloud architectures. But architectural reliability is only one piece of overall wireless service availability. The potential benefits of cloud resiliency may be outweighed by alternative solutions that provide much better wireless stability via better radio design, adaptive RF features, antenna optimisations, interference avoidance, and the like. For the customer, the fundamental requirement for good wireless connections often plays a premium above the cloud’s sex appeal. Ultimately, RF capabilities and customer priorities will always guide the decision.

Clearing things up

Obviously, customers want the best of all worlds: intuitive management, excellent data analytics, easy implementation, and adaptive, reliable radio performance. What many fail to understand is that wi-fi reliability and performance will never be helped by anything that cloud computing offers.

While moving wi-fi functionality into cloud is an exciting part of a total package, with a clear list of benefits, it’s not for everyone, nor does it solve all the problems. It’s simply one way to address a piece of the whole puzzle.

Organisations must look for a full range of architectural alternatives from controller-based to standalone APs, private cloud controllers to public clouds service. One fact remains clear: wireless reliability and performance must underpin any architectural choice.  Without it, you’re left with an easy to manage wi-fi network that nobody uses.

Louis Au is VP of Asia Pacific at Ruckus Wireless.


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