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Cloud-based networking hardware: Coming to a wiring closet near you?

Cloud-based networking hardware has gained traction in the wireless LAN market, but now vendors are developing wired network devices that are cloud-managed, too. Will cloud-based network infrastructure fill up your wiring closets?

Cloud-based networking may sound like hype, but network engineers should take notice: Network devices that are managed through the cloud are becoming a reality. Some pioneering companies have already pushed the management and control planes of wireless LAN infrastructure into the cloud, and now they are introducing wired devices that use the same cloud-based networking hardware model.

"The low-hanging fruit right now is wireless access points, but it's completely conceivable that anything from switches to any other network device could be effectively managed from the cloud," said Harold Mann, president of Mann Consulting, a San Francisco firm that uses cloud-based wireless access points from D-Link to deliver managed wireless LAN services to small and midsized businesses (SMBs).  "It's just a matter of hardware companies getting around the challenges with some protocols."

Wireless LAN vendors have led the way with cloud-based networking hardware. Most wireless vendors centralize the management and control planes of wireless LAN infrastructure into an on-premise controller appliance, but Meraki pioneered a cloud-based approach, pushing these functions into its own cloud where customers can manage their wireless networks through a multi-tenant portal. Aerohive, which uses a controllerless wireless LAN architecture, also has a cloud angle. While the control plane remains fully distributed among Aerohive's access points, customers have the option of running the management plane of the vendor's infrastructure through a cloud-based version of Aerohive's management software, HiveManager.

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Atheros, the world's leading manufacturer of Wi-Fi chipsets, has also embraced cloud-based networking hardware. It announced a partnership with PowerCloud Systems, a startup vendor that offers a "networking cloud operating system" for networking OEMs. Atheros is integrating some of its chipsets with PowerCloud technology so that wireless LAN vendors can build access points that can be managed through a cloud. D-Link is the first vendor to take advantage of this partnership, offering a new family of SMB-focused, cloud-controlled access points.

But cloud-based networking hardware doesn't stop at the wireless LAN. Both Aerohive and Meraki have delved into cloud-based routers. Meraki has introduced a pair of homegrown routers that are managed through the same cloud that manages the vendor's wireless LAN access points. Aerohive purchased cloud routing vendor Pareto Networks, which manufactures several cloud-managed routers.

Before buying Pareto Networks, whose cloud-based routers were aimed primarily at teleworkers and home office environments, Aerohive was developing a series of cloud-based routers internally, according to vice president of marketing Stephen Philip. Now Aerohive's internally developed routers will be enterprise-class devices with features integrated from Pareto's technology. These routers will come out later this year.

"We were moving our solution into broader cloud networking," Philip said. "We started to define routers and platforms that we were going to bring to market that were a bit beefier [than Pareto's routers]. We're going to pause and immediately integrate their features into our operating system and our cloud."

Cloud-based networking hardware could forever change infrastructure sales

It's likely that cloud-based networking hardware could easily spread from wireless LAN and small routers into broader enterprise network infrastructure, according to Andre Kindness, senior analyst with Forrester Research. That could forever change the way networking infrastructure is sold.

"Cisco is looking at losing out on hardware sales, so why not bring it in through the services side? It's a perfect example of hardware companies looking to create revenue streams outside of hardware. 'We'll create the software and you pay us a monthly fee to use it.' Kind of a SMARTnet contract for the cloud. IBM managed services, for $20 a port, will come in and do network management for you. For $100 a port they'll keep your network refreshed. Now hardware vendors can do that [through the cloud]. The stock market rewards companies that have subscription services over one-time sales."

Cloud-based networking changes the economics of network hardware acquisition. For instance, Meraki now offers a subscription option for its hardware. Rather than buying each access point for $800 or $900, an enterprise has the option to pay a monthly fee, starting at $25, for each one.  Its new routers, the MX70 and MX50, are priced the same way, starting at $35 per month.

Reducing management overhead with cloud-based networking

The government of Sacramento County in California deployed a cloud-based wireless LAN from Meraki throughout its municipal buildings a few years ago, replacing a legacy multivendor wireless network, greatly reducing overhead, according to Joshua Voelkert, senior IT analyst.

The county deployed the Meraki infrastructure as an overlay network with no direct connection to its wired enterprise network. The wireless network delivers Internet access to employees and authenticated guests. County employees have the option of connecting to the enterprise network over the Meraki wireless LAN with an SSL VPN connection.

By moving management of his wireless LAN into the cloud, Voelkert replaced on-premise wireless network management and user authentication servers with cloud-based services in Meraki's cloud.

"We have fewer appliances and servers that we have to store in our data centers," he said. "It reduces the amount of room, power and additional software and support we have to do for those additional servers. Having it in the cloud also just makes it a lot easier. It's easier to train on a single point of view instead of having [multiple management systems]."

Voelkert is testing a pair of Meraki's new MX70 cloud-based routers in his two data centers as gateway routers to the Internet for the Meraki wireless LAN.  If the tests go well, the county will use the routers to track users of the wireless network and Voelkert may use some of Meraki's more advanced features available on the routers, such as URL filtering, bandwidth throttling and traffic shaping.

Although Voelkert has had a good experience with Meraki's cloud-based approach, he's hesitant to adopt cloud-based networking hardware within his larger and more complex enterprise network. He worries that he would lose the ability to manage a cloud-based enterprise network if he were cut off from the Internet.

"I don't see a lot of use for cloud for that type of environment because we have so many systems of voice, video and MPLS environments,” he said. “I don't see that the cloud environment could handle all that. You get into real complex networks. It's tough to offload all of that, and also it has to be able to work if we had to shut down our Internet connections during disasters. We don't want to be sitting here without the ability to manage [our network]."

Demand strict SLAs for cloud-based networking

Pushing management and control functionality of network devices out to the cloud comes with a certain level of risk, but enterprises can mitigate that risk with upfront negotiations on service-level agreements (SLAs), Kindness said. For one, enterprises must do their homework about the security of pushing this functionality into the cloud. They also need to ensure that a loss of cloud connectivity won't paralyze their management cloud-based network devices.

"People want to take the easy route of let's just do it rather than do the footwork beforehand to develop that SLA. But the SLA is the key to success. Otherwise it will blow up in people's faces," Kindness said.

Security of the cloud-based networking model is Voelkert's top concern. He's still testing Meraki's new MX70 routers to ensure they meet the county's security requirements. 

"One thing we look at with cloud-based management is what kind of data is being pushed out there," he said. "We're careful about protecting the data we have, and we don't want a lot of information moving across the Internet into the public cloud. But I don't see a lot of information being sent out [into Meraki's cloud]."

Let us know what you think about the story; email Shamus McGillicuddy, News Editor.

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