There are three main reasons enterprises opt for locally controlled WLAN over cloud-controlled WLAN. First, performance is paramount, even if it means sacrificing ease of management and new capabilities. Second, stringent security requires wireless users to authenticate through strict measures. Third, the organization is already on a locally controlled WLAN and wants to ease into the cloud.
These reasons align with the purchasing criteria potential IT buyers should consider as they examine leading locally controlled enterprise WLAN vendors. This includes performance needs, enterprise WLAN security options, deployment flexibility and ease of management relative between WLAN vendors. While each WLAN product gives the end user wireless connectivity, these distinctions can help you differentiate between products.
Here, we examine offerings from five leading enterprise WLAN vendors -- Aerohive Networks, Aruba, Cisco, Extreme Networks and Ruckus Networks -- and detail which products address the criteria noted above.
WLAN performance needs
Organizations that require wireless users to have the highest performance for certain applications, or environments rife with interference, should consider a vendor that's focused on performance.
When we refer to WLAN performance, we're talking about optimal transmit and receive throughput over wireless signals. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers' standards provide the theoretical limits of each 802.11 protocol. For example, 802.11g has a theoretical maximum physical bit rate of 54 Mbps. In comparison, the latest 802.11ac Wave 2 protocol can reach maximum theoretical bit rates of 2.34 Gbps today -- and potentially up to 6.93 Gbps, with clients capable of supporting eight spatial streams. But it's important to note that these bit rates are never actually achieved in real-world deployments. Factors such as distance to the wireless access point, number of clients associated to an AP, wireless signal interference and physical obstructions all lower the actual throughput.
To help minimize loss, enterprise WLAN vendors use various techniques with their wireless chips and physical antennas to squeeze out the most performance. For example, Cisco integrates spectrum intelligence directly onto the wireless chipset, so the radio can detect and avoid wireless interference. Some vendors, such as Ruckus BeamFlex+, use antenna technologies that sport a multielement antenna design that steers the wireless signal around obstructions.
Ruckus Wireless' BeamFlex smart antenna array has revolutionized how enterprise WLAN technology can intelligently route wireless signals around problematic areas. The company's multielement antenna design gave signals more paths on which they could send and receive data. This provided much better odds of successfully transmitting and receiving data in areas of high interference. While each AP is generally more expensive than competing units, BeamFlex provides better performance and overall coverage. This means deploying fewer APs, which can reduce overall cost of ownership in large deployments.
BeamFlex+, the latest iteration of its antenna technology, provides increased adaptive signal steering for mobile devices, including the ability to detect device orientation. Cisco also excels in performance, but is clearly behind Ruckus. This is because enterprise WLAN vendors like Cisco and Aruba focus on the wireless chipset to improve wireless performance, while Ruckus is the only vendor that focuses on physical antenna modifications.
This series on wireless LAN controllers examines some of the leading vendors in this segment. Companies selected were based on research data from TechTarget surveys, interviews and reports from other respected research firms, including Gartner.
Enterprise WLAN vendors' security options
Network security is a top priority for many companies. In terms of wireless security, admins use tools like network access control (NAC) for authentication or authorization when providing wireless access to end users. NAC not only performs various user and device authentication checks, but it also performs operating system and application posture assessments prior to allowing the device onto the network. NAC is different from a mobile device management tool that only enforces network policies for wireless devices. An NAC tool can enforce both wired and wireless endpoints, which is important for security-conscious organizations that want to treat all endpoints with the same security measures.
Those with a NAC product like Cisco's Identity Services Engine may want to consider an end-to-end WLAN and NAC system for easier integration. Other vendors, such as Aerohive and Ruckus, are far more focused on WLAN technology. And while both companies sell enterprise-class managed switches, security options are limited, and neither offer true end-to-end network infrastructure like Cisco, Aruba and Extreme Networks.
Vendors designed traditional locally controlled WLANs to tunnel all traffic back to a centralized controller before it went out onto the wired network. But in enterprise environments with many remote sites, managing AP configuration functions through controllers and then offloading the wireless data directly onto the wire at the remote site is optimal. All enterprise WLAN vendors discussed in this article have this capability, but some, like Aerohive and Aruba, consider it a primary feature and largely recommend network architects design and deploy this architecture by default.
Both Aerohive and Aruba also offer the ability to use the same AP hardware for both on-premises and public cloud deployments. Extreme and Ruckus offer WLAN products with cloud and on-premises management options for certain APs. In all cases, this flexibility allows companies to start with an on-premises WLAN and migrate to the cloud as time permits.
Ease of WLAN management
When planning to deploy a locally controlled WLAN, understanding how to best manage the system should be a key concern. Many network administrators might be great at routing and switching, but fewer excel at managing and troubleshooting enterprise-class WLANs, which can be extremely complex.
Both Cisco and Ruckus have intricate systems that admins can finely tune to meet the needs of almost any WLAN environment. Technologies such as Cisco CleanAir and RF grouping offer more advanced features, but they are even more complex to manage. Both companies offer add-on WLAN management software tools, like Cisco Prime or Ruckus SmartZone, to help ease the pain of large-scale WLAN management, though at an extra cost. Extreme Networks also offers its NSight visibility product that provides advanced troubleshooting tools for highly critical wireless deployments.
Aerohive and Aruba offer simplified platforms that are easier to manage. The interfaces are streamlined and allow for an easy, single-pane-of-glass configuration and troubleshooting interface that works well in a large number of WLAN deployment scenarios.
Which enterprise WLAN vendor is right for you?
Despite the growing popularity of cloud-controlled WLAN architectures, there are still legitimate reasons to deploy a locally controlled WLAN architecture. Companies driven by a need for extra performance requirements or tight integration with enterprise security tools should examine vendors like Ruckus Networks, Extreme Networks and Cisco. Companies that don't want to waste time and money completely rearchitecting their wired LAN, yet want the flexibility to migrate to the cloud at a gradual pace using existing equipment, should consider enterprise WLAN vendors like Aerohive, Aruba and Ruckus, which have simpler WLAN options.
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