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Wireless management in the cloud heralds transformation

Placing wireless management in the cloud is gaining traction among enterprises as companies examine more efficient ways to oversee their networks. It's part of a shift that's affecting network infrastructure.

For those of us who have been working in computing for a bit longer than perhaps we'd like to admit, the concept of time-sharing likely reminds us of our early days in the field -- accessing a mainframe via an alphanumeric terminal over a dial-up connection at a whopping 1,200 bps or so.

OK, even the most nostalgic among us wouldn't want to experience that again. Yet, the concept of using remotely provisioned resources -- what we today refer to as the cloud -- is, in fact, the concept of time-sharing brought into the modern era. It's based, of course, on the high throughput, availability and resilience of today's Internet. Cloud services are so robust and cost-effective that core elements of Wi-Fi are today moving to the cloud, paced in large part by wireless management.

Virtualization fuels transformation

Virtualization has underpinned this shift. The term has traditionally been used to describe such capabilities as virtual memory (making the operating system think it has more RAM than actually exists) and virtual machines, which enable multiple operating systems to run simultaneously and distinctly on a single processor. But let's broaden that definition a bit -- imagine any IT capability, hardware or software, which would normally require a local, physical implementation, and move that to the cloud. In fact, a surprising range of networking functionality can be virtualized, turning capital expense into an easy-to-manage operating expense.

The ability to manage even a very large network from anywhere -- via a mobile device -- has broad appeal across almost every networking shop.

This is precisely what we're seeing as the major trend in wireless management today. What used to require a dedicated local server (or, at least, a virtual machine) is instead provisioned as a service in the cloud -- once again exploiting the cloud's availability, scalability and resilience. The ability to manage even a very large network from anywhere -- via a mobile device -- has broad appeal across almost every networking shop. Network management thus becomes a significantly easier chore, with no more running back to the office on weekends to handle what are most often routine issues.

Let's extend this concept a bit. We're also seeing a trend today toward unified management, overseeing both wireless and wired elements as one. Ethernet switches today serve a primarily supporting role for access points, provisioning power and interconnect. Ditto for routers, which, in concept, are much simpler today than in the past. As a result, IT can manage the entire network from that same mobile device.

Cloud becomes more pervasive

And let's go further. Let's virtualize wireless LAN controllers (if required by a given architecture and implementation) and put these in the cloud, along with their wireless management. How about emerging but soon-to-be-critical functions like real-time analytics? Ditto for much of software-defined networking. Networking as a scalable, reliable, cost-effective service? You bet. All of these can emanate from the cloud.

Lately, we've been surveying clients and key industry players with some provocative questions, among them: What does the network of 2025 look like? How much "real" infrastructure will be required, and what elements will be provisioned -- again, often as a service -- in the cloud?

It's too early to craft a definitive answer, or discern anything even remotely approaching unanimity in the responses we've studied. But we do have an interim opinion. (Hey, that's what analysts do, after all.) Eventually, local network infrastructure will only consist of three components: APs, Ethernet switches and backhaul to the Internet via a router function built into higher capacity switches. That's it. Really.

If you have not already considered the potential of wireless management as a service in the cloud, now is probably a good time to do so. And, yes, this step is likely a gateway step to a networking as a service future that would have been only of passing theoretical interest just a few years ago.

Next Steps

Why engineers love cloud-managed wireless

Enterprise wireless management tools

Managing guest wireless network access

This was last published in May 2016

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