Cisco branch networks simplified with cloud-managed WLAN and security

Get ready for simplified Cisco branch networks. At Interop 2011, Cisco announced a cloud-based WLAN controller that manages APs across hundreds of branch networks.

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The takeaway: Cisco branch networks are about to get simpler with a cloud-based wireless LAN controller that can manage thousands of access points across hundreds of branch offices, limiting the need for on-site IT staff in the branch office.

At Interop Las Vegas 2011, Cisco Systems announced cloud-based remote network management and centralized security products to address the biggest challenge faced by enterprises with very large WANs: the lack of on-site IT staff at branch offices.

The release includes a wireless LAN controller capable of managing and controlling thousands of access points (APs) across branch offices from a centralized data center. The company also added ScanSafe cloud-based Web security to its Integrated Services Router (ISR) G2 line, which prevents large WAN managers from having to backhaul Internet traffic to headquarters for security.

"Remote troubleshooting has always been a challenge to address [in the branch network]," said Michael Spanbauer, principal analyst with Current Analysis. "The simpler you can make the branch office, the more you can reduce your IT costs.”

Cisco cloud-managed wireless LAN

The new Cisco Flex 7500 Series Cloud Controller is a 1 RU wireless LAN controller capable of managing 2,000 wireless LAN access points and 20,000 mobile clients across 500 branches. It is available now at a list price of $47,995. The Flex 7500 supports Layer 2 wireless networking, secure guest access and rogue AP detection, as well as managing up to 50 APs. It does not support Layer 3 roaming and it won't support higher end rich media such as multicast video.

Data traffic is switched locally among the APs in a given branch, so if WAN connectivity is lost and APs can't communicate with the Flex 7500, they can still serve local clients, said Inbar Lasser-Raab, senior marketing director at Cisco.

Many enterprises aim for remote management of expensive wireless LAN controllers locally deployed in larger branch offices that don't have IT staff, Spanbauer said. By consolidating these distributed controllers with a single Flex 7500 in a central data center, a company can reduce both operational and capital expenses, he said. 

"Centralizing the challenging-to-configure hardware ultimately reduces your OpEx, because there's no need to send technicians out to replace or troubleshoot those controllers," he said.

Cisco also announced a new wireless LAN customer at Interop 2011, national retailer Bass Pro Shops, which adopted the new Flex 7500 after beta testing. The retail chain uses the 7500 to manage wireless LAN deployed across 54 stores, each with 35 or more wireless clients, including handheld scanners and wireless printers, as well as its corporate headquarters and distribution facility.

Director of IT Services Steve Marshall started beta testing the Flex 7500 at Bass Pro Shops "because of Cisco's promise that there was added resiliency for the APs and potential costs saving," he said. "We will see savings in new stores as we no longer need local controllers."

Centralized cloud wireless LAN management also means the ability to roll out OS updates across the branches. After all, “if you make one change to this controller, that can go out to a set of 200 branches whether it's security, management or other wireless enhancements,” said IDC analyst Rohit Mehra.

Pushing controller functionality to the cloud is not necessarily a novel approach. Meraki has been a pioneer in the space, offering a subscription-based, wireless LAN cloud controller service, rather than a physical box like Cisco. Aerohive distributes wireless LAN controller functionality across its APs with just its centralized management server, HiveManager.

Cisco also announced at Interop 2011 that ScanSafe Web security will be available in the ISR G2 in July as part of the line's existing security bundle license, which starts at $2,595 per box. Although ScanSafe is a free addition to the ISR security bundle, customers will have to subscribe to the general service in order to take advantage of the ISR feature.

"The vast majority of organizations still backhaul [Internet traffic] to headquarters for security," Lasser-Raab said. "One of the biggest challenges most organizations face is ever-increasing WAN requirements. More are deploying video services."

Rerouting Web traffic to a cloud-based security service like ScanSafe over an Internet circuit can greatly reduce that WAN bandwidth consumption, she said.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Shamus McGillicuddy, News Editor.

To learn more about Interop, view our 2011 Interop Las Vegas conference page.

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