The cloud WLAN market is highly competitive and rife with jargon.
So, let's cut through all the marketing chatter and lay out what's important when considering a cloud-controlled WLAN product purchase.
WLAN physical environment
The first thing to consider is the physical environment where the cloud WLAN will reside. Most enterprise-class WLAN hardware can handle typical office environments and get around minor physical obstructions, like cubicles and drywall. Deployments in manufacturing plants, warehouses, outdoor spaces and retail outlets, however, often require additional hardware and software features.
Some WLAN vendors integrate location-based services. For example, Apple iBeacon can integrate directly into any vendor's wireless AP if the vendor supports it. This technology allows businesses to track the whereabouts of customers through their smartphones in places like retail stores, airports and even ski resorts. Companies are also deploying beacon technologies in warehouses and manufacturing plants to track high-value assets.
You should also consider whether the cloud WLAN supports the ability to wirelessly mesh networks when wired connectivity isn't an option. Nearly all enterprise-class, cloud-controlled WLAN vendors offer mesh deployments, but the provisioning sets them apart. Some APs automatically provision themselves with neighbors when they detect they aren't wired, while other vendors' APs require manual configuration. Keep in mind that some lower-end AP options aren't mesh-capable. If this is a requirement, make sure the vendor software and hardware supports mesh networks.
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.
WLAN application support
Moving beyond physical differences, to properly evaluate cloud WLAN vendor offerings, you must consider the applications in use and where those applications reside. Wireless requirements vary greatly from one application to the next in terms of bandwidth, latency and the ability to seamlessly roam from one AP to the next. This is especially critical with applications that stream voice and video.
Although vendors may claim their WLAN products have unique components and features, the cloud WLAN products included in this series all have comparable hardware, which is also enterprise-grade in terms of client data transport.
Despite comparable components, not all APs can handle the same number of radios. A typical AP contains dual radios -- one at 2.4 GHz and the other at 5 GHz -- for serving client communications. Some vendors have added a third radio that manages the radio frequency (RF) environment and provides always-on and real-time security monitoring to identify and remediate wireless threats. While some wireless vendors offer similar functionality using a dual-radio AP, that radio must be taken offline in order to free it up for RF management and security. So, organizations with a real concern regarding RF space security should look into a cloud-controlled WLAN product that offers a dedicated radio for this specific purpose.
Another critical factor when evaluating applications served by the cloud-controlled WLAN is determining where application and cloud data is stored. Some cloud WLAN vendors tout the fact their WLANs have 100% survivability in the event of a WAN link failure. For locally stored applications and data, this is an important feature, as users can continue to access locally operated applications until IT restores the WAN connection and re-establishes communication to the cloud controller.
On the other hand, if the majority of applications are served off site, either at a corporate-owned data center or at a cloud-based service provider, the ability to use wireless networks locally when a WAN connection is down doesn't provide any benefits. This is more common with branch offices. Additionally, many critical locations already have WAN redundancy built in, so keep these things in mind when rating the importance of one feature over another.
Cutting-edge cloud WLAN features
Cloud-controlled WLAN vendors often take different approaches with new features and functionality. Some vendors suggest customers use auto-deploy to automatically push new features to hardware as soon as possible. Many of these new features show up with a beta indicator in the management dashboard. This is much like Google's approach to beta software: The vendor allows users to access it, but cautions it might not be fully ready for release.
Other vendors take a more conservative approach and hold features back to ensure new functionality works as advertised. Beta software is often available from vendors, but IT must request it manually. Both approaches have pros and cons. It simply boils down to how cutting-edge the environment must be at the expense of potential problems when implementing the latest and greatest features.
Layer 7 visibility and control
Monitoring and controlling wireless networks and data at Layer 7 essentially means the cloud controller can categorize user data by application. This extra layer of visibility -- at the application level -- means cloud WLAN admins can create quality-of-service policies or rate-limiting rules to allocate bandwidth to a user, application or service set identifier. For example, admins can use Layer 7 visibility and control to identify bandwidth hogs, such as streaming video traffic, and then throttle bandwidth maximums, so end users don't create bottlenecks for business-critical applications. Admins can even create Layer 7 firewall rules that block access to undesired applications altogether.
If Layer 7 visibility and control are critical parts of the WLAN management goals, investigate vendor products in terms of application identification and classification. Some platforms identify applications based on identifiers that don't require looking inside each packet. While effective, this reduces accuracy and flexibility when applying policies to certain applications.
The need for a single-vendor architecture
Finally, some cloud WLAN vendors have taken an extra step and offer cloud-controlled routers, switches and security appliances as part of a single-vendor architecture. These devices can be managed through the same cloud management web interface, which offers increased visibility and ease of management. This can be appealing for environments with many branch offices that are largely dispersed. It is here the true power of end-to-end visibility from cloud-managed architectures can be seen.
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Find out more about cloud-based wireless LAN in Network Evolution