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Motorola on the future of the wireless LAN controller

Recently Motorola announced a significant change to its wireless LAN architecture with its WiNG 5 announcement. With WiNG 5, Motorola is running identical firmware across its wireless LAN controllers and access points.  Its access points have enough memory and processing power to operate independently from a controller, allowing enterprises to deploy controllerless WLAN infrastructure.

This new architecture allows an access point to perform some of the high-level security, policy and RF management roles that have traditionally been centralized in a controller.

At first glance it appeared that Motorola was going the way of start-up Aerohive, which has had a controllerless approach to WLAN from its inception. However, Motorola isn’t dumping the controller appliance altogether. It still has a role, but Motorola admits that the role is evolving. In fact, from what Motorola says, it sounds like everything about the WLAN controller is evolving.

Manju Mahishi, Motorola’s director of product management, told me that WiNG 5 is meant to give enterprises flexibility in deployment and to avoid bottlenecks associated with backhauling high throughput 802.11n data through centralized controllers. But he said that controllers will not be disappearing from Motorola’s WLAN architecture.

“We believe very strongly that in the vast majority of cases, depending on the number of access points in a local site, you can get away without having controllers. Up to 24 access points can be deployed without any controller,” Mahishi said. “But there are scenarios where we still see certain enterprises customers will still want to pull data centrally. They want to do all data processing through a controller, whether on specific VLANs or on guest access. Even though we see the benefits of distributed intelligence and having the access points doing all the work, there are still scenarios where [enterprises] will want to pull certain data if not all data through controllers, whether they are doing packet inspection or applying some security policies.”

He said there are some scenarios where the access points will simply not have the processing power to match Motorola’s high-end controllers. For instance, a highly subnetted network will require a controller. If a company wants to extend certain VLAN from a central campus out to branch offices, they will also use controllers to pull data back through a WAN.

Beyond the role of the controller, Mahishi said the format of the controller is also set for an evolution. He said Motorola’s OEM partnerships with Brocade and Extreme Networks are pushing the concept of a controller in a new direction. He said the ability to virtualize a controller and run it on a third party switching platform from one of these OEM partners could offer new ways of scaling a wireless LAN while simultaneously integrating it into the wired infrastructure.

“We can easily virtualize [controller] functionality,” Mahishi said. “When we were demonstrating WiNG 5, we were running it on a laptop. Clearly the intent is to be able to take this capability and run it on a cloud-based controller or any server-based appliance that can scale. The WiNG 5 architecture helps us get there.”

Networking pros will doubtless follow Motorola’s evolution of the controller-access point architecture very closely. Controllers from most WLAN vendors are extremely expensive and vendors like Aerohive and Meraki have made hay with customers by offering WLAN infrastructure that is free of a costly physical appliance. Aerohive’s access points collaborate as a virtual controller while Meraki offers cloud-based, subscription controller functionality, which transfers the controller function from a big-ticket capital expense to a low-cost, but ongoing, operational expense.

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Hi Shamus, Excellent article. I enjoyed it much (as I usually do with your articles). :) Exactly as [A href=""]predicted[/A], vendors who have an Ethernet line to protect will integrate controller intelligence into edge switches (e.g. Extreme and Brocade) so as not to lose that income stream. Also as [A href=""]predicted[/A], controller-based vendors will move to a controller-less platform in small increments while marketing against controller-less in order to be seen as differentiated from Aerohive and not to alienate their existing customer base. Aerohive has never run into a single customer (out of 1000+ customers) who prefer to centralize their data flows when they have the option to distribute them. We agree with Manju's statement, "We believe very strongly that in the vast majority of cases, depending on the number of access points in a local site, you can get away without having controllers." The vast majority is about 99.999% of the time in fact, making it very difficult to justify the cost of a controller. :) A fully distributed architecture can be used to [A href=""]centralize [/A]data in the 0.001% of circumstances where administrators feel it necessary. Aerohive also feels that Manju's statement about, "there are some scenarios where the access points will simply not have the processing power to match Motorola’s high-end controllers" is true of Motorola's access points, but not those of some other vendors (Aerohive included). Aerohive's APs are about 4X more powerful than Motorola's, taking into account CPU power, RAM, encryption offload CPUs, hardware limitations like 32 APs do not apply to Aerohive. Pulling "all data" through controllers as Manju is suggesting will lead to severe bottlenecks at the controller and retain the single-point-of-failure in the network (which is why Motorola is trying to distribute data flows). This statement sounds like marketing spin to help justify the existence of an expensive hardware platform that would no longer be needed if the APs had appropriate horsepower. The same is true of the "evolving controller" statements (which we know means turning the hardware appliance into an application gateway and pushing the controller code into edge Ethernet switches) just sounds like another way of justifying the existence of something that needs to be removed altogether. It seems that Motorola is talking about what they're "going to do", but not really doing much of it. Maintaining client sessions while L2 roaming across up to 32 APs doesn't seem like much innovation to me. What about radio resource management (RRM), authentication, L3 roaming, WIPS, RTLS, and all of the other control plane functions? Without pushing all of these control-plane functions into the AP, Motorola must rely on its controller almost all of the time. I guess Motorola's current generation of AP hardware just isn't up to the task of operating the control plane, so until it is, they have to rely on their expensive controller hardware. They can spin it any way they like, but the bottom line is that they are WAY behind the architectural curve, and their customers are going to have to go through this painful journey of architectural change with them. Devin Akin Chief Wi-Fi Architect Aerohive Networks
Hi Devin, This current shift towards a controller-less environment intrigues me :) I understand that virtualising the controller leads to added benefits of Capex (initially) but isnt there an ongoing Opex (ie £70 per month per access point). So say I was planning a roll out of 100 APs then that would be an annual Opex of £7000 whereas the intial purchase of a controller would only be say a one off of £3000 and it is a physical unit. Also could you explain the failover of a controller-less AP? I do agree with your comments about Motorola being "on the way" to controller-less but not entirely there yet ;) Thanks Jon