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Cisco wireless controllers: Product overview

Cisco wireless LAN controllers are designed for a wide range of environments, including small and midsize businesses and large enterprises.

Editor's note: This Cisco wireless LAN product overview is part of a series on buying wireless LAN technologies for the enterprise that compares cloud-controlled WLAN versus locally managed WLAN. We look at the buying criteria for cloud-managed WLAN products and the criteria for buying locally managed WLAN solutions. We also compare the top cloud-controlled wireless LAN vendors in the market and the leading vendors in the locally managed WLAN market.

Cisco offers one of the most robust on-premises WLAN product lines on the market. This product overview focuses on Cisco wireless controllers targeting midsize to large organizations. Cisco also has a large family of access points (APs). Of the vendors covered in this WLAN technology series, Cisco and HP/Aruba are the only two that provide end-to-end networking solutions. Many companies value single vendor network equipment options, as they can lower support costs and simplify troubleshooting problems that span both wired and wireless networks.

Cisco wireless controller options

The Cisco 2504 Series wireless LAN controller (WLC) appliance is for small companies and branch offices that require on-site controller capabilities. It can manage up to 75 APs, has a maximum client support of 1,000 users and a maximum throughput of 1 Gbps.

The 5500 Series WLC appliance is for medium to large-sized enterprises. The highest capacity 5500 series model can manage up to 1,500 access points with maximum client support of 20,000 users and a maximum throughput of 20 Gbps.

The 5700 Series is different from all other Cisco wireless controllers because it uses the Cisco Internetwork Operating System (IOS) that Cisco routers and switches run on. IOS is incredibly streamlined and fast. Because of this, the 5700 series has the highest simultaneous throughput rate of any on-premises controller at 60 Gbps. The 5700 can support up to 1,000 APs and 12,000 connected clients. This model is best suited for environments that require very large amounts of data throughput over wireless.

Cloud-controlled WLANs

This series focuses on "cloud-controlled" wireless LANs, which are configured and managed entirely from the cloud, and only the access points remain on location. By contrast, "cloud-managed" WLANs are managed partly from the cloud and partly through on-site equipment.

The 8500 Series is the flagship Cisco wireless LAN controller. It is ideally suited for large enterprises or campuses with large numbers of APs and wireless devices. The 8500 series can manage up to 6,000 APs, has a maximum client support of 64,000 users, and maximum throughput of 40 Gbps.

The Virtual Cisco Wireless Controller is a great option for small to medium-sized companies or for branch offices with an on-premises virtual server. A single Virtual WLC can manage up to 200 access points, supports up to 6,000 users and has a maximum tunneled throughput of 500 Mbps.

Integrated Controllers like those found in the Catalyst 3650 and 3850 switches are for branch office locations. These Cisco wireless controllers use FlexConnect technology to manage APs and offload data remotely, as opposed to having it tunnel back to a full-blown Cisco wireless controller across a wide area network. The switches can be configured to manage up to 50 APs and support 2,000 client devices. Throughput can be as high as 40 Gbps depending on the switch model in use.

Pricing for Cisco wireless LAN controllers varies depending on the model, but the 2504 Series starts at about $930. The 5500 series and 5700 both cost more than $10,000, while the 8500 series costs about $50,000. Cisco uses standard support contracts for its controllers. SmartNet support can include phone and email support, remote troubleshooting, firmware upgrades and defective hardware replacement.

Next Steps

Learn how to defend your wireless APs

Learn more about moving between APs

Know what to look for when buying an AP

Prepare your network for the 802.11ac standard

This was last published in September 2015

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Which WLAN vendor does your enterprise use most?
I closely follow all the novelties related to WLAN technologies and can say with certainty that Cisco wireless LAN products such as controllers perfectly apply for both small and medium businesses and companies. It has large capabilities and suits for managing large number of APs. I personally using such kind of controller in my office for more than 500 users and I'm really satisfied.
This is just open marketing, directly from vendor presentations, without any own technical opinion or even sign of critical approach.
Heading is misleading -- it is not overview, but copy from Cisco marketing sheets. Somebody looking for real overview or advice about choosing WLAN technology have to look elsewhere. Even Cisco benefits are not visible here -- as things chosen to mention are actually asking for some critical questions.
Emphasizing "one vendor approach" is also misleading -- there actually is no such thing as one vendor wire and wireless gear portfolio, there are big companies which bought different products and somehow integrated them together. Cisco owns now 2 incompatible WLAN product lines (Aerospace and Meraki), which has different origin, management and feature sets. Similarly, HP is well known for often changing OEM vendors manufacturing gear marketed as Procurve Wireless (all generations are incompatible to each other, Aruba beeing what -- 5th attempt?).
Cisco has the biggest installed base in Wi-Fi enterprise market, but not because it has technically the best product. Cisco owned WLAN product lines are good enough (in the best 5 area), but they enterprise sales power overwhelming. Actually, both Aruba and Ruckus products technically are better, much easier to manage, implement and support, they perform better in difficult RF conditions, and cost less, but as we see -- it is not yet enough to compensate sales power of giant. Situation is different on carrier WLAN market -- there technical level is more important, and Cisco isn't Nr. 1 by volume.