Wireless LAN technology: A buyer's guide
A collection of articles that takes you from defining technology needs to purchasing options
The number of enterprise-class cloud-controlled vendors has grown rapidly due to the benefits cloud-controlled WLANs offer over locally managed products. A few enterprise-class WLAN vendors are considered to be head and shoulders above the rest in the cloud-controlled WLAN space, however. Each vendor implements unique features that optimize their products for a variety of use cases.
(Note that cloud-controlled WLANs are configured and managed entirely from the cloud, with only the access points remaining on location. By contrast, "cloud-managed" WLANs are managed partly from the cloud and partly through on-site equipment.)
The four leading vendors in the cloud-controlled WLAN space are Aerohive, Cisco Meraki, Aruba and Ruckus Wireless. In this article, we will evaluate each vendor's offerings to help you determine which WLAN products are the best for you.
- Physical environment
- Application support
- Need for cutting-edge features
- Layer 7 visibility and control
- Point-to-point versus end-to-end solution
Physical environment factors
Wireless signals are sensitive to physical obstructions and interference from other devices attempting to operate over the same Wi-Fi channel. If you are deploying your WLAN into a typical office environment with cubicles and drywall barriers, any vendor can do the job. But if your physical environment is an industrial facility or an environment with metal obstructions and equipment that regularly moves around, you should look for a vendor that focuses on optimal wireless connectivity.
Ruckus Wireless excels in these types of deployments, as the company custom-builds its wireless chips and antennas to provide the strongest wireless signal in harsh physical environments. Its cloud-controlled hardware is identical to its locally managed hardware, however. Ruckus offers only private-cloud solutions or requires you to go through a third-party service provider that offers Ruckus Wireless as a managed service.
Some vendors are beginning to incorporate Bluetooth radios in wireless access points for wireless tracking. This may be valuable for users deploying in a retail environment because it allows the WLAN to track user movements by tracking Bluetooth beacon messages emitted by customers' smartphones and picked up by the store's access points. Both Cisco Meraki and Aerohive are well-known and highly popular in the retail space because of Bluetooth radios.
Application architecture refers to where wireless applications are being served. If the applications are served locally rather than remotely, it makes a big difference in terms of which cloud-controlled vendor would best suit your environment. If the majority of applications are remotely served, either over the Internet or through VPN tunnels, it really doesn't matter what vendor you go with since any of the cloud-controlled options will be reliable. But if your mission-critical applications are served from a local data center, you may want to look at cloud-controlled vendors that continue to operate in the event of an Internet outage -- that is, products that operate in the event of a loss of communication to the cloud controller. Aruba, which was recently acquired by HP, touts this capability, as does Aerohive. By contrast, Meraki's products require Internet connectivity for wireless access. Even if your applications are locally hosted, users will not be able to access them until connectivity to the Meraki cloud is restored.
Keep in mind, however, that other wireless functions like authentication servers must also be localized in order for wireless-connected users to work uninterrupted during an Internet outage.
If your organization needs the latest and greatest WLAN product features, Meraki and Aruba are at the top of the list. Meraki has been great at innovation and rolls out new firmware features faster and easier than any competitors. This includes unique methods to monetize wireless hot spots and the ability to authenticate networks through users' social network accounts. Aruba's cloud-controlled product is making great strides in terms of releasing cutting-edge features on a similarly rapid schedule. Features like integration with third-party tools, including Microsoft Skype for Business and Palo Alto firewalls, bring something new and unique to the table.
Layer 7 visibility and control
Each of the top enterprise-class vendors offers some level of layer 7 application visibility and control. This essentially means wireless data can be identified by the controller, categorized into applications, and then be subject to content filtering, quality of service or bandwidth restrictions. Solutions like Aruba's cloud platform has some layer 7 visibility, but is not as robust as what Aerohive and Meraki provide. Meraki uses a special packet-processing engine to look deep into each packet for classification and categorization of wireless data traffic. In terms of ease of management using the cloud-controller interface, Meraki has a more easy-to-understand and elegant solution. Much like Apple, Meraki spent large amounts of time and resources creating its graphical user interface (GUI). The goal is to make the human-to-computer interaction as seamless as possible. From a usability standpoint, Meraki's GUI works well.
Point solution or end-to-end solution
If you plan to deploy a wireless network in multiple branch offices, it would probably be appealing to be able to manage other branch network equipment like routers/firewalls and switches. Both Aerohive and Meraki offer cloud-controlled security appliances and switches that allow entire branch offices to be administrated from one cloud-based interface. Ruckus doesn't currently have this capability. Aruba may introduce cloud-controlled switches and firewalls in the future, although it has not officially announced plans to do so.
The best WLAN products for you
Choosing the best cloud-controlled WLAN products depends on your organization's needs. If you're looking to deploy a WLAN in a very harsh environment with many physical obstructions, look at third-party service providers that offer Ruckus Wireless private cloud services. These environments would most likely fare better with a locally managed WLAN architecture. Other than that, the three cloud-controlled vendors that will likely be at the top of your list are Aerohive, Aruba and Meraki. As the pioneer in the cloud-controlled wireless space, Meraki tends to have a better-rounded portfolio and can be a good fit in most environments. Aerohive also is a strong contender, but it tends to innovate at a slower pace than other vendors. Traditionally, Aerohive observes what bleeding-edge companies like Meraki or Aruba are doing successfully and add it to their solution later. Finally, Aruba has emerged as a strong presence in the cloud-controlled space due to the speed with which it rolls out updates and should definitely be a cloud WLAN vendor to watch.
Learn how cloud-controlled WLANs make network management easier.
Learn how to leverage your cloud-controlled WLAN to manage a VPN.
Discover how to plan your network for cloud-controlled WLANs.
Examine how heat maps can help wireless networks.