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7/11 chain cuts out controller to lower wireless networking costs

A convenience store chain selects Aerohive's controller-less wireless networking over Cisco's products to save money and decentralize the network.

When Mike Mattice needed to deploy wireless networking to more than 100 Oklahoma 7-Eleven convenience stores, his first thought was to look at what Cisco had to offer. But the math just didn't work out.

"Cisco was the big one … and some of their solutions were a pretty good fit for us," said Mattice, senior systems programmer and integrator for 7-Eleven Stores LLC, the independent franchise that owns the Oklahoma stores. "They priced themselves completely out of the solution in terms of the redundant controllers we would need for the uptime we wanted. It just would have been really cost prohibitive."

After all, the entire impetus for deploying wireless was to save money. The network would be used to support a new, centralized stock management system with wireless scanners that would drastically lower the on-hand stock needed to supply a store.

So the 7-Eleven chain looked at Aerohive, a new WLAN vendor whose mesh networking architecture eliminates the need for controllers, saving a fair amount. The popular convenience store chain is not the only enterprise looking to save on the Cisco premium.

"If companies are thinking about going to a controller-based architecture, it could literally cost them many millions of dollars just to migrate," said Paul Debeasi, senior analyst at the Burton Group. He said much of that expense was in buying multiple controllers to support thousands of access points (APs).

Aerohive, which started selling APs in May 2007, has aggressively pushed its savings advantage over traditional controller-based networks.

"There is a cost-value proposition that Aerohive communicates, and it's real," Debeasi said. "By not purchasing controllers, they can save money pretty quickly."

While Aerohive's APs retail for almost twice the price of Cisco's products ($995 vs. $699MSRP), Cisco controllers typically run about $40,000 which Debeasi said could drive total upgrade costs into the millions for a large enterprise.

Mattice said affordability wasn't the only factor that drove his selection of Aerohive. He also liked the resiliency of its systems. Each store will have one Aerohive AP. Those APs will operate independently, so a power outage at headquarters will not stop branch sales.

"If the network's down, there's a lot of things that can't happen," Mattice said. "We try and maintain their autonomy as much as possible."

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Since Aerohive's mesh networking system distributes control, nearby APs can minimize the disruption if one AP goes down. This has little effect on the single-AP stores, but it means the headquarters has the seamless wireless coverage one would expect even if one AP does go down.

A central HiveManager manages the devices and pushes updates out as needed, but unlike a controller, all the data routing intelligence is in the AP itself. If the HiveManager goes down, for example, the APs still function independently.

Mattice said the rollout went smoothly last March, enabling the chain to overhaul its inventory management system after a year of planning. The savings realized by the new system paid for the wireless within a few months.

"We bought a big bundle of access points and HiveManager and had our own guys hang them up on ceilings," Mattice said. "That's all they physically did, just sent them up in the ceiling and hooked them into the network."

From there, the HiveManager pinged and configured the APs, in this case configuring them to keep out guest users and report back on their current status, according to Mattice.

Debeasi praised Aerohive's resiliency but cautioned that some of the company's marketing claims about the competition – central point of failure, the need to push all wireless data through the controller – were no longer applicable with the right configurations in common Cisco and Aruba setups.

"[With] respect to the branch, saying that if a competitor's link goes down, the four corners of the network go down is not really the case," Debeasi said. "However, Aerohive does have resiliency: If you deploy multiple access points and one goes down, it can route against that."

The biggest caution against switching your enterprise to Aerohive, according to Debeasi, isn't technical at all; rather, it's the financial health and independence of the company.

"I have no doubt that the product works and is robust," Debeasi said. "The real question is growth of the business, health of the business, the ability to support customers in a timely way.… Make sure you feel comfortable with their financial position."

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