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When SDN meets cloud-managed Wi-Fi control, HotSpot 2.0 gets easier

With Tallac Networks' technology, MSPs use a cloud-based SDN platform for Wi-Fi control and provisioning, and to simplify HotSpot 2.0 management.

Tallac Networks is applying SDN to Wi-Fi networks with a cloud-based wireless controller that manages on-premise access points and enables the provisioning of virtual network tenants with granular Wi-Fi policy management.

Managed service providers (MSPs) will resell Tallac's Wi-Fi as a service, which also enables simpler management of user Wi-Fi access across HotSpot 2.0 environments.

Tallac's cloud-based controller platform manages on-premise 802.11n and 802.11ac access points and uses OpenFlow commands to manage within individual virtual networks (vNets). This applies application-centric Wi-Fi network attributes for each group or tenant in the shared, multitenant infrastructure.

"Once you deploy a single, physical Wi-Fi network, you then orchestrate how you're going to divide that into tenant vNets," said Bill Johnson, president of Tallac Networks. After defining the attributes required by the tenant or group, MSPs can instantiate each vNet wherever they need it throughout the network.

"Any user who connects into that vNet will inherit those attributes. They will only be able to operate in the ways the attributes define," Johnson said.

That way, a surveillance vNet has attributes consistent with the needs of a surveillance camera; a guest vNet can throttle back bandwidth to avoid overconsumption of available bandwidth. A VoIP vNet would have QoS parameters set so that voice calls meet user expectations and requirements; an employee vNet would offer tunneling abilities between the current network and the home network that connects to the corporate infrastructure, and so on.

How SDN Wi-Fi control improves HotSpot 2.0

Applying this kind of virtual networking and access control to HotSpot 2.0 environments makes it simpler to integrate resources from private and public service providers in order to allow users to pass between networks with access policy intact.

Hotspot 2.0 allows for automatic sign-on and authentication of mobile users, with dynamic hand-off of data traffic between cellular and Wi-Fi networks. That means users can remain connected to one session while passing between hotspots and even changing the network they're connected to.

This has always required a complex set of backend agreements between cellular network operators and private Wi-Fi providers. But Tallac's technology connects any provider that can advertise itself on the network using a unique SSID and then dynamically connects users according to set policy.

While previously providers functioned off of a static list of networks to enable Hotspot 2.0, Tallac updates this list dynamically based on the users in the room and what they are requesting. "We have a feature that allows any Wi-Fi service to appear at any location on demand," said Paul Congdon, CTO of Tallac Networks. An MSP offers brokered services in addition to basic Wi-Fi that allow roaming customers to show up at a venue and request a Wi-Fi network, which appears automatically," Congdon said.

Tallac Networks connects each of these backend networks while enforcing individual policy requirements, QoS, or security requirements by using SDN to install rules instead of using a product feature in the Wi-Fi controller to do it. For example, SDN can implement a Wi-Fi policy about bandwidth limits for particular users, using a rules-based approach. SDN implements Wi-Fi policy control by binding the policy requirements of a given tenant group to the Wi-Fi and the user when the user connects.

What SDN, cloud-based Wi-Fi control means for MSPs

Tallac is in the process of building a channel of MSPs to resell its Wi-Fi cloud platform service to mid-market business customers in education, retail and hospitality.

MSPs typically invest in expensive Wi-Fi controllers and access points up front, which lock them into long-term capital investments in closed, proprietary systems.

More on SDN and mobile

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Conversely, Tallac takes care of hardware implementation and the cloud platform, while MSPs focus on creating and selling new services that sit on top of Wi-Fi, Johnson said.

"We ship devices direct to the location, turn them on, and connect them back to the cloud for management," Congdon said.

For the MSP, the focus shifts from managing RF and antenna functions to monetizing applications and services, he explained. MSPs do have access to a central web interface which lets them provision network tenants and granularly control policy on an ongoing basis.

Challenges ahead for cloud-based Wi-Fi control

MSPs won't necessarily find it easy to bring Tallac's service to market considering most enterprises are already entrenched in traditional Wi-Fi installations and may be unwilling to completely shift gears. As such, Tallac may initially be an option for green field projects, said Ronald Gruia, emerging telecoms director, Frost & Sullivan.

The good news is that Tallac's team largely comes from HP, so while they technology is new, it's likely the team knows how to solve real problems just as HP has for other enterprise applications, such as security and multi-tenancy, said Michael Howard, principal analyst and co-founder of Infonetics Research, Inc.

Over time, the Tallac model could be ideal for the SMB. "What is unique about this is that there is a one-throat-to-choke model," says Gruia. "From that perspective, it's nice and elegant especially for SMBs that may not have in-house expertise or who may not be willing to spend a lot of money."

Tallac Networks is currently focusing on MSPs that serve K-12, higher education, retail, hospitality, hotels and conferences centers, Johnson said.

Editor's note: In the second part of this article, learn how other vendors are developing SDN wireless technology.

This was last published in April 2014

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Would you trust your wireless LAN to cloud-based management?
Compare to the learning curve and effort to manage the APs, I would rather to trust the cloud management.
Yes sure, wireless as a service makes a lot of send for the underserved SMB community who don't have the expertise to manage complex enterprise Wi-Fi gear, and would rather not shell out for controllers and management servers. Meraki proved the market for us, and there are now many new cloud-managed Wi-Fi providers chasing after the SMB retail and hospitality market. As for large enterprise...time will tell. All the Enterprise WLAN vendors are pushing the cloud management model, in the hope of building a recurring services business, but I've seen very little news about large enterprises adopting it. Enterprises want to squeeze OPEX out of the network, not add a monthly recurring charge. In large networks, there is little evidence that the cloud model reduces operational cost, it only reduces CAPEX on controllers and management servers.