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Unified network management planning: Integrating wired and wireless

To deploy unified network management, enterprises must look at the current network infrastructure, how users connect to the network and possibly embracing platforms like the cloud.

Since its inception, enterprise wireless LAN has functioned as an overlay network on top of wired networks. As a result, the platforms for wired and wireless network management have evolved separately, usually with separate teams working in each environment rather than a unified network management solution.

Now enterprises are beginning to deploy wireless networks more widely and adopting them as the primary access layer. Wireless ubiquity is forcing enterprise networking teams to find ways to consolidate capital expenditures and simplify operations by treating the Ethernet and wireless LAN networks as a single unified network infrastructure with an integrated management platform. Enterprises have several options for pursuing unified wired and wireless network management. The path they choose will depend on the network infrastructure they already have, how users connect to the network and IT’s willingness to embrace new paradigms such as cloud computing.

Absorbing a unified wired and wireless network management solution

Some enterprises unify wired and wireless network management by installing add-ons for the wireless LAN infrastructure to their existing wired network management platforms. In most cases, the networking vendors have mature network management software for their routers and switches that can serve as a solid framework for added wireless management capabilities. However, this approach favors enterprises that use a single vendor for both their wired and wireless networking infrastructure.

Grove City College standardizes on HP Networking for its network infrastructure, and the network team at the Pennsylvania school manages the wired components with HP’s ProCurve Manager Plus (PCM+) solution. When the college started to build out campus-wide wireless network access, CIO Vincent DiStasi decided to standardize on HP wireless LAN products, not only because they met his requirements, but because they allowed him to have an integrated wired and wireless network management approach with PCM+.

The college has three generations of HP’s wireless LAN products deployed on campus, ranging from legacy standalone access points to some of the latest 802.11n controller-based products. PCM+ integrates all of them into a centralized network management system.

“HP ProCurve does not make a product available for sale without having a way to plug it in to PCM+, even the product lines from the Colubris and 3Com acquisitions.” DiStasi said.

DiStasi's network engineers use PCM+ to view the school's switches, routers, controllers and wireless access points by model, enabling the networking team to maintain consistency in firmware versions and configuration changes.

The networking team can also use the PCM+ Identity Manager add-on to apply bandwidth and security policies across both wired and wireless infrastructure to users based on integration with the school's Active Directory server. “As a college, we basically rotate 25% of our users every year. To keep support calls to a minimum, we strive to make it easy for all of our users to connect to the network, wherever and however they need to,” DiStasi said. "The value of network management cannot be overstated. Without PCM+, our days would be very long.”

Wireless network management products support wired devices creating a unified network infrastructure

Many wireless network management products are expanding to support wired devices.

Using a native wireless network management platform will appeal to companies that are striving to become an all-wireless enterprise. These organizations have forgone cabling Ethernet ports to the desktop and are deploying wired network ports only to wireless access points. A wireless network management system that includes support for the primary wireless access, as well as support for the switches that connect the wireless LAN elements, might be all that an all-wireless enterprise needs.

Pat Wren, managing director of operations for Edmonton-based ATB Financial chose Aruba Networks’ AirWave Wireless Management Suite as his unified network management platform, partly due to its support of third-party wired networking products like Cisco switches and routers.  AirWave gives his network engineers an easy-to-use, visual representation of the wired and wireless networks across multiple ATB locations around Alberta, Canada. “Our network administrators… get a view of our locations throughout the entire province and can quickly zoom in to the trouble spots on our overall network,” Wren said. He said that maps of the company's offices are overlaid with the locations of all network devices within the AirWave interface.

ATB deployed AirWave when it rolled out an Aruba-based wireless LAN, but the company's engineers use the product to monitor and manage Cisco Integrated Services Routers (ISRs) at ATB’s 165 branches. The combination of the AirWave product and the new wireless network has reduced the number of physical switch ports needed at remote branches, while giving engineers full visibility and control of the branch networks.

Moving wired and wireless network management into the cloud

Some enterprises view the cloud as the ideal point for unified wired and wireless network management. New cloud-based network management platforms offer many of the benefits of other cloud computing services, including reduced capital expenditures and simplified software maintenance. A number of wireless LAN vendors, including Aerohive and Meraki Networks, now offer management products in a subscription-based cloud platform. Both Aerohive and Meraki also offer cloud-based routers that can be managed through the same cloud. Aerohive's routers are part of a recent acquisition of Pareto Networks, and Aerohive plans to integrate the products into its existing management platform.

Ty Puckett had traditionally struggled with managing his legacy wireless LAN at Greenway Medical in Georgia. The IT director had to move back and forth among command line interfaces and complicated licensing schemes for every new feature he wanted to deploy.

When the electronic health record software company upgraded its wireless network, Puckett and his team replaced the legacy network with new wireless LAN infrastructure from Aerohive. The deployment included a subscription to HiveManager Online, Aerohive’s cloud-based network management platform. 

“We have been moving a lot of the systems our company depends on into the cloud, so we were pretty open to a cloud-based WLAN management,” Puckett said.

The cloud-based HiveManager manages all configuration, management and monitoring of the company's wireless access points through an encrypted Web link. Puckett and his team can log in from anywhere with Internet access to add new access points to the network, change network settings or troubleshoot issues on network. Puckett said he is able to push software updates to his access points from home, rather than logging on to a console in the office.

“I typically log in on a Sunday evening from home and push the new firmware to groups of radios. And we never have to upgrade the software in our cloud controller,” said Puckett, adding that he has seen a continuous stream of updates and new functionality that literally just appears when Aerohive revises the HiveManager Online management software.

For Puckett, the power of cloud-based management was realized during Greenway Medical’s annual user conference. Puckett’s team was tasked with providing wireless access for both Greenway’s employees and conference attendees who were miles away at the chosen off-site venue.

“In the past, I certainly would have spent the week at the hotel ensuring that everything stayed up. With cloud management, I was able to tweak and optimize both the corporate and guest wireless networks to deal with demand while sitting at my desk,” said Puckett.

The remote access capabilities, an easy to use Web interface and lower costs when compared to hardware wireless LAN controller-based solutions were the key points that Puckett cited for switching to a cloud-based management product.

“HiveManager Online has made me rethink how to manage my network going forward. Cloud-based management will definitely factor in to future infrastructure purchasing decisions. If Aerohive started selling switches and routers this way, sign me up,” Puckett said.

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