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Compare leading on-premises and cloud-managed WLAN products

In order for your organization to select the WLAN architecture that will best meet its needs, you must compare product types, deployment options and capabilities.

The enterprise wireless LAN market is split into two distinct product groups. On one side, there's a WLAN architecture that's managed by an on-premises controller. On the other side, wireless access points, or APs, are managed using a public cloud service. Although both architectures have pros and cons, there's a product designed for your specific WLAN deployment.

Beyond the on-premises versus cloud decision, there are other factors that differentiate one vendor's WLAN products from another. Some companies specialize in providing hardware and software methods to reduce wireless interference. Other vendors offer more advanced tools for granular configuration and troubleshooting. Whatever the differentiating factors may be, it's important to know what features are the most useful to your organization while evaluating the different enterprise WLAN options.

Below are brief overviews of several leading enterprise-class WLAN products. You can use this information to compare product types, deployment options and capabilities. It should be useful to anyone who is looking to build a new -- or replace an existing -- WLAN in their organization. Note that several vendors are listed twice. This is because they sell different WLAN products, depending on whether you choose to deploy an on-premises or cloud-managed architecture.

Aerohive HiveManager NG
Tool type:
On-premises or cloud-managed WLAN
Deployment options: Physical APs, virtual or cloud controller
Number of clients: Unlimited
Purchase options: Sold through Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) Aruba resellers

Unlike other wireless vendors that have separate WLAN products for on-premises and cloud-managed architectures, Aerohive is the same no matter which controller deployment design you choose. One method runs your HiveManager NG virtual appliance controller on premises, while the other uses the HiveManager NG public cloud service. You might choose the on-premises architecture if the deployment location suffers from internet connectivity issues. But not having to manage a local controller while preserving full functionality is highly appealing to many.

In terms of device licensing, both the on-premises and cloud-managed architectures require a per-device annual or multiyear subscription. The on-premises virtual HiveManager NG also requires the purchase of a one-time, perpetual license fee per access point.

In terms of APs, Aerohive offers several indoor and outdoor units, including standard APs with built-in antennas. This includes the AP550 series to wall plate AP-Ethernet switch combinations, which are suitable for the hotel and hospitality industries. Aerohive also offers outdoor APs, such as the AP1130, which offer interchangeable external antennas for a wide variety of physical deployment scenarios.

To help bolster the company's cloud-managed portfolio with competitors, Aerohive offers network switches, routers and VPN gateways that use the same HiveManager NG management platform for single-pane-of-glass management.

Editor's note

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.

Aruba Mobility Controller
Tool type:
On-premises managed WLAN
Deployment options: Physical and virtual
Number of clients: Up to 32,768 clients per appliance, depending on the hardware model
Purchase options: Sold through HPE Aruba resellers

Aruba offers three primary on-premises controller families, with different-sized appliances within each line. The 7000 series controllers are for small corporate offices or branch offices. These controllers are unique in that they can perform duties as a wireless controller, an Ethernet switch and a firewall.

The 7200 series offers wireless controllers for medium and large deployments. The smallest controller --  the 7205 -- comes with two 1 Gigabit Ethernet (GbE) interfaces, while the 7210, 7220 and 7240 come with four 10GBase-X SFP+ ports. Maximum throughput starts at 12 Gbps on the 7205 appliance and scales up to 40 Gbps on the 7220 and 7240 appliances.

Lastly, there's the Mobility Master, which is Aruba's next-generation, on-premises WLAN controller management tool. You can deploy the Mobility Master as either a hardware appliance or a virtual machine. This controller offers more advanced features, such as hitless failover, intelligent bandwidth steering and user load balancing.

In terms of wireless APs for on-premises controllers, Aruba offers a wide range of standard indoor and outdoor models, as well as desk and wall plate units. The 200 series models consist of the entry and midrange APs, while the 300 series models are the flagship units, with 802.11ac Wave 2 capabilities.

Aruba Central
Tool type:
Cloud-managed WLAN
Deployment options: Physical APs, cloud-managed WLAN
Number of clients: Unlimited
Purchase options: Sold through HPE Aruba resellers

Aruba's cloud-managed networking service is known as Central. Besides WLAN management capabilities, Aruba also offers cloud-managed Ethernet switches using the same management dashboard. The APs that are supported by Aruba Central are known as Instant APs. Benefits of the cloud-managed product include zero-touch provisioning, streamlined firmware management and automated configuration backups in the cloud.

As with all cloud services, Aruba Central requires a cloud subscription license for every managed device on the network. In terms of AP hardware compatibility, Aruba does a fantastic job at this. All but one Aruba AP -- AP-103H -- are fully compatible with the cloud-managed architectures and ship with both the on-premises ArubaOS and instant access operating systems from the factory. That means you don't have to compromise on hardware. You can seamlessly migrate from an on-premises controller to a cloud-controlled WLAN at any time, if you choose to go the cloud-managed route.

Cisco Aironet
Tool type:
On-premises managed WLAN
Deployment options: Physical
Number of clients: Up to 64,000 per appliance, depending on the hardware model
Purchase options: Sold through Cisco resellers

Cisco refers to its locally managed WLAN controller as the wireless LAN controller, or WLC. The Cisco 3504 series WLC sits on the low-end of the spectrum. This controller is suited for small office environments that manage up to 3,000 wireless clients. A unique feature of the 3504 is it includes 802.3bz multi-gigabit Ethernet ports for connecting the latest 802.11ac Wave 2 APs. For very large deployments with between 20,000 and 64,000 devices, Cisco offers the 8500 series WLC appliance. This controller has impressive throughput capabilities, thanks to the inclusion of 40 GbE uplinks to the network.

Cisco offers a wide range of wireless AP choices in the Aironet line for both indoor and outdoor deployments. The 1800 series is Cisco's most basic AP, which is suitable for small businesses and remote sites. The 3800 series is the top-of-the-line Aironet AP, which is geared toward very dense deployments, with hundreds of devices connecting to a single AP at any given time. The 3800 series is currently the only series that supports multi-gigabit connectivity.

Cisco Meraki MR
Tool type:
Cloud-managed WLAN
Deployment options: Physical APs and cloud-managed WLAN
Number of clients: Unlimited
Purchase options: Sold through Cisco Meraki resellers

Meraki was a trailblazer in the cloud-managed market and was acquired by Cisco in late 2012. Customers that wish to use the Meraki cloud to manage their WLAN must purchase an indoor-outdoor AP to deploy in the physical environment along with a cloud subscription license. Once the license is registered to the Meraki cloud, network admins can configure and administrate the APs through a web-based portal.

Meraki offers several AP models, such as the entry-level MR20 and MR33 that are suitable for general-use deployments. For sites that require high-density and improved performance, there's the MR52 and MR53 line of APs that come with integrated or external antenna options.

In addition to cloud-managed WLAN components, Cisco Meraki also sells cloud-managed switches, firewalls, phones and security cameras.

Extreme Networks WiNG
Tool type:
On-premises managed WLAN
Deployment options: Physical and virtual
Number of clients: Up to 200,000 per appliance, depending on the hardware model
Purchase options: Sold through Extreme Networks resellers

Extreme Networks has made several recent acquisitions, which positions the company as one of the few networking vendors that can truly provide an end-to-end wired and wireless network. Those acquisitions include Zebra Technologies' wireless LAN, which was previously the WLAN technology developed by Motorola Solutions.

Extreme rebranded the Zebra Technologies on-premises WLAN platform WiNG. The company offers several different hardware controller appliances for SMBs, including the WiNG NX 5500 and 7500 series. In addition, Extreme supports very large deployments with hundreds of thousands of clients through the WiNG NX 9000 series of physical and virtual controllers.

One of Extreme's key differentiators with its on-premises WLAN products is the inclusion of its popular NSight WLAN visualization platform. NSight gives administrators a customizable dashboard that can be tuned to view critical WLAN information. This can significantly decrease troubleshooting and expose the true root cause of wireless problems.

In terms of APs, WiNG consists of all the standard indoor- and outdoor-capable devices that range between the entry-level 7000 series and high-end 8000 series for high-density deployments using 802.11ac Wave 2 technology.

Prior to the Zebra Technologies WLAN acquisition, Extreme had its own on-premises controller and AP portfolio. This portfolio is still available for sale today, although it seems the company is migrating this technology over to its cloud-managed service, ExtremeCloud.

Extreme Networks ExtremeCloud
Tool type:
Cloud-managed WLAN
Deployment options: Physical APs and cloud-managed WLAN
Number of clients: Unlimited
Purchase options: Sold through Extreme Networks resellers

Beyond the on-premises versus cloud decision, there are other factors that differentiate one vendor's WLAN platform from another.

Extreme has its own cloud-managed WLAN service known as ExtremeCloud. In addition to being able to manage certain indoor and outdoor APs in the cloud, you can also manage some of Extreme's more popular Ethernet switch models. Like all cloud-managed platforms, ExtremeCloud allows for easy scalability when it comes to the implementation and management of campus and remote-site deployments. Each device requires an annual or multiyear subscription to manage the device in the cloud.

ExtremeCloud is a relatively new service, having launched in mid-2016. Because of this, there are relatively few supported APs when compared with Extreme's on-premises WLAN architecture. In fact, the company offers only three indoor APs -- AP 3805i/e, AP 3912i and AP 3935i/e -- and one outdoor AP -- the 3965i/e AP. While this simplifies the decision-making process, certain deployment environments may find these choices limited.

Ruckus Wireless SmartZone
Tool type:
On-premises managed WLAN
Deployment options: Physical and virtual
Number of clients: Up to 100,000 per appliance, depending on the hardware model
Purchase options: Sold through Ruckus Wireless resellers

Ruckus Wireless differentiated itself from competitors by offering high-end wireless hardware with specially designed antenna arrays and a technology called BeamFlex+. This technology helps steer wireless communications around physical obstructions and unlicensed spectrum interference. The company's latest generation of on-premises controller architecture, SmartZone, comes in two different physical appliance models, as well as two equivalent virtualized appliance versions. The SmartZone 100 appliance and Virtual SmartZone-E can support up to 25,000 users and can be clustered to accommodate 60,000 clients. The higher-end SmartZone 300 or Virtual SmartZone-H can handle 100,000 clients per controller and up to 300,000 when multiple controllers are combined into a cluster.

Ruckus offers an extensive line of wireless APs that can accommodate almost any indoor or outdoor need. This includes APs that are designed to be installed as wall plates in locations such as hotel and conference rooms and other open spaces. The H320 and H510 models include a built-in Ethernet switch in addition to a Wi-Fi radio to offer both wired and wireless connectivity. The range of APs includes entry-level models, such as the R500; midrange models, such as the R610; and high-end APs, such as the R720.

Ruckus Wireless Cloud Wi-Fi
Tool type:
Cloud-managed WLAN
Deployment options: Physical APs and cloud-managed WLAN
Number of clients: Unlimited
Purchase options: Sold through Ruckus Wireless resellers

Ruckus was a bit late to the game when it came to cloud-managed wireless. Officially launching in mid-2016, the Ruckus Cloud Wi-Fi service enables customers to manage their WLAN in the cloud. This service is unique because the majority of APs that can be configured and managed using the on-premises SmartZone architecture can be migrated to the cloud-managed service. For example, if you have R300, R500 or R600 series APs deployed in an on-premises architecture, you don't have to replace the AP hardware if moving to the Cloud Wi-Fi service.

Ruckus has gone through several recent acquisitions. The company was first acquired by Brocade in 2016. Brocade then sold Ruckus to ARRIS in early 2017. Hopefully, the company can continue to expand its wireless business, as well as move further into networking, with products using its ICX switch line technology.

This was last published in July 2018

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