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Meraki: from cloud-based WLAN to cloud-based networking

When start-up Meraki first hit the scene a few years ago, it was known as the cloud-based wireless LAN vendor, yet another player in a very crowded market. Today it’s repositioning itself as a cloud-based networking vendor, with an expanded portfolio aimed at competing directly with Cisco Systems.

“The dominant competitor we’re going after across all our products is Cisco,” said Kiren Sekar, vice president of marketing at Meraki.

Originally a pure WLAN player

Meraki first offered a unique solution: A wireless LAN that required only access points, but no central controller appliance. Instead, the access points would go to a Meraki cloud for control and management. Meraki’s cloud interface offers administrators configuration management, automated firmware upgrades, and global visibility into the managed devices.

The vendor has done pretty well in a booming wireless LAN market, listing Burger King, Applebee’s, and the University of Virgina as customers. Meraki’s approach offers low-cost network operations, since its cloud-based management interface is aimed at serving general IT administrators rather than experienced network engineers.

Now routers and access switches

Last year Meraki introduced a small line of branch router-firewalls, its MX series. Like it’s wireless line, the Meraki MX routers are managed through the cloud. Again, the cloud approach offers global views of ports across multiple sites, configuration management, alerting and diagnostics, and automated firmware upgrades. The firewall functionality also included application layer inspection, a key feature of next-generation firewalls.

This month, Meraki expanded its portfolio even further, adding MX boxes capable of connecting enterprise campuses and data centers. The routers feature two-click, site-to-site VPN capabilities and WAN optimization features such as HTTP, FTP and TCP acceleration, caching, deduplication and compression.

Also, Meraki launched a new MS series of Layer 2/3 access switches, including 24-port Gigabit Ethernet model and a 48-port 1/10 Gigabit Ethernet model, with or without Power over Ethernet (PoE). Again, these MS switches are managed through the Meraki cloud. The switches are obviously designed to compete head-to-head with the Catalyst 3750 series of switches from Cisco. These MS switches start at a list price of $1,199 for the 24-port, non-PoE switch. Combine that with ongoing licensing for the cloud-management support, and the total cost of ownership on the basic switch is about $1,400 over three years.

If a low cost of ownership value proposition on switching and routing (and WLAN) is important to you, Meraki can make a compelling case. However, the low-TCO sales pitch is starting to wear thin according to a lot of the experts I talk to. Networks are getting more complex, not simpler. Low-cost doesn’t ring bells in every IT department.

That’s why Meraki offers home-grown, advanced network services for no additional cost on its boxes. The MX router-firewalls come with WAN optimization features bundled in. Other vendors would require a license upgrade (or a separate appliance). They feature application-aware inspection and policy enforcement, something that usually requires a separate vendor. I can’t vouch for how these Meraki features compare to the WAN optimization capabilities of Riverbed Technology or the next-generation firewall capabilities of Palo Alto Networks and Check Point Software. But Meraki isn’t interested in competing with Riverbed, Palo Alto or Check Point. It’s going after Cisco.

“We view WAN acceleration as a way to differentiate ourselves from Cisco as opposed to a way to compete with Riverbed,” Meraki’s Sekar said. “For every company that has Riverbed, there are 10 who don’t, because they can’t absorb the cost or the complexity. But everyone needs a firewall.”

Is a low-cost, easily managed networking vendor something you’re looking for? Or do you still prefer to go for the higher-end products from your established vendors? Let us know.

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