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How to buy cloud-controlled WLAN products

Networking expert Andrew Froehlich discusses what you should look for when purchasing a cloud-controlled WLAN solution for your organization.

The cloud-controlled WLAN space is a highly competitive market right now. In this article, we'll cut through all the marketing chatter and lay out what you need to consider when getting ready to buy cloud-controlled WLAN products.

Note that "cloud-controlled" WLAN products are configured and managed entirely from the cloud, with only the access points (APs) remaining on location.

By comparison, "cloud-managed" WLANs are managed partly from the cloud and partly through on-site equipment. "Locally managed WLANs" are completely located and managed on-site by the enterprise.

WLAN physical environment

The first thing to think about is the physical environment where your WLAN will eventually be deployed. Most enterprise-class WLAN hardware can handle typical office environments and get around minor physical obstructions like cubicles and drywall. Deployments in manufacturing plants, warehouses, outdoor spaces and retail outlets, however, often require additional hardware and software features.

It boils down to how cutting edge your environment needs to be at the expense of potential problems when implementing the latest and greatest features.

Some WLAN vendors are beginning to integrate location-based services. For example, Apple iBeacon can integrate directly into any vendor's wireless access points (AP) if the vendor supports it. This location-based technology allows businesses to track the whereabouts of customers in places like retail stores, airports and even ski resorts. Such products are also being increasingly deployed in warehouses and manufacturing plants to track the locations of high-value assets. The ability to create wireless mesh networks, when wired connectivity is not an option, is also something to consider. All enterprise-class cloud-controlled WLAN vendors offer a mesh solution, but the provisioning sets them apart. Some APs are designed to automatically provision themselves with neighbors when they detect they are not connected to a wired connection, while other vendors' APs require manual configuration. Keep in mind that some lower-end AP options are not mesh-capable. If this is a requirement for your deployment, make sure the vendor software and hardware supports mesh networks.

WLAN application support

Moving beyond physical differences, a proper cloud-WLAN evaluation must compare vendor offerings based on the types of applications wireless users are likely to use -- and where those applications reside. Wireless requirements vary greatly from one application to the next in terms of bandwidth, latency and the ability to seamlessly roam from one access point to the next. This is especially critical with applications that stream voice and video. Although vendors may claim their products have unique components and features, the cloud-controlled WLAN products included in this series all have comparable hardware that is considered enterprise-grade in terms of client data transport.

Despite comparable components, however, not all APs can handle the same number of radios. A typical AP contains dual-radios (one at 2.4GHz and the other at 5 GHz) for serving client communications. Some vendors are adding a third radio that manages the radio frequency (RF) environment and provides always-on and real-time security monitoring to identify and remediate wireless threats. While some wireless vendors offer similar functionality using a dual-radio AP, that radio must be taken offline in order to free it up to use for RF management and security. So, if you have a real concern regarding the security of your RF space, you may want to look into a cloud-controlled WLAN product that offers a dedicated radio for this specific purpose.

Another critical factor when evaluating applications that will be served by your cloud-controlled WLAN is the location where the application and data is stored. Some cloud-controlled vendors tout the fact that their WLANs have 100% survivability in the event of a WAN link failure. If your applications and data are stored locally, this may be an important feature, as your users could continue to access locally operated applications until the WAN connection is restored and communication to the cloud-controller is re-established.

On the other hand, if the majority of your applications are served offsite, either at a corporate-owned data center or at a cloud service provider, the ability to use wireless locally when a WAN connection is down does not provide any benefits. This is more common with branch offices. Additionally, many critical locations already have WAN redundancy built-in, so keep these things in mind when rating the importance of one feature over another.

Need for cutting-edge features

Cloud-controlled WLAN vendors often take different approaches with new features and functionality. Some vendors -- like Meraki -- suggest that customers use auto-deploy to automatically push new features to hardware as soon as possible. Many of these new features show up with a "beta" indicator in the management dashboard. This is much like Google's approach to beta software: The vendor allows users to have access to it but cautions that it might not be fully ready for release.

Other vendors take a more conservative approach and hold features back to ensure new functionality works as advertised. You can often request beta software from vendors, but this must be done manually. Both approaches have their pros and cons. It simply boils down to how cutting edge your environment needs to be at the expense of potential problems when implementing the latest and greatest features.

Layer 7 visibility and control

Being able to monitor and control wireless data at layer 7 essentially means the cloud controller has the ability to categorize user data by application. With this extra visibility down to the application level, WLAN administrators can create quality of service policies or rate-limiting rules to control how much bandwidth is allocated to a user, application or SSID. For example, you can use layer 7 visibility and control to identify bandwidth hogs such as streaming video traffic, and then throttle bandwidth maximums so your end users don't create bottlenecks for business-critical applications. You can even create layer 7 firewall rules that block access to undesired applications altogether.

If layer 7 visibility and control is a critical part of your WLAN management goals, investigate vendor solutions in terms of application identification and classification. Some solutions identify applications based on identifiers that don't require looking inside each packet. While effective, it reduces accuracy and flexibility when applying policies to certain applications.

Need for end-to-end solution

Finally, some cloud-controlled WLAN vendors have taken an extra step and are beginning to offer cloud-controlled routers, switches and security appliances. The beauty here is that all devices can be managed through the same cloud management Web interface. This can offer increased visibility and ease of management. This can be appealing for environments with many branch offices that are largely dispersed. Your organization simply needs a point solution for wireless-only purposes; however, you shouldn't have much concern about integrating it with other, third-party network components.

Next Steps

Examine the best practices for deploying wireless access points.

Learn how wireless mesh networks solve problems with outdoor WLAN deployment.

Businesses look to exploit Wi-Fi applications for indoor location tracking.

Achieve WLAN bandwidth management with mobile devices.

Find out more about cloud-based wireless LAN in Network Evolution

This was last published in August 2015

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