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Meru offers virtual wireless LAN controller, iPad management app

Meru introduced a virtual wireless LAN controller as an alternative to hardware-based appliances and virtual versions of its E(z)RF management suite.

Wireless LAN infrastructure vendor Meru Networks has introduced a new line of virtual wireless LAN controllers. The virtual controllers are an alternative deployment model to Meru’s traditional hardware appliances.

With its virtual wireless LAN controller, Meru joins a growing list of wireless infrastructure vendors who are decoupling controller functionality from hardware appliances. Aerohive distributes controller functionality across its access points. Meraki delivers its control plane as a cloud-based service. And Adtran-Bluesocket has offered a virtual wireless LAN controller for a couple of years now.

Meru is rolling out three versions of its virtual wireless LAN controller. The top version, the MC4200-VMW, is rated to manage a maximum of 500 access points, and the company will offer future versions that can scale into the thousands of access points, according to Meru vice president of market development Bob Schiff.

Meru announced that it will also make its suite of E(z)RF wireless LAN management products available as virtual products, as well as through cloud-based subscription service. Meru channel partners will be able to offer enterprises E(z)RF management products as managed services.

The virtual wireless LAN controllers, available next month, will support VMware’s hypervisor technology. By moving controller functionality from a dedicated hardware appliance to an ESX host, network engineers have one less box to power and maintain. The controller becomes just another application running in the virtualized data center. Although Meru didn’t disclose pricing, Schiff said the virtual controllers will cost less than hardware counterparts.

Bob Mays, network and communications director for Villanova University and a Meru customer, said he would want to put the virtual wireless LAN controller through its paces before he would consider using them.

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“There is some interest [in a virtual wireless LAN controller], but I would have to see what is the cost, how does it work, how is it managed,” he said. “When you virtualize, you’re saving power and clearly you’d be saving on maintenance money, but I wouldn’t jump right on the bandwagon.”

Mays also wants a guarantee that a virtual wireless LAN controller can handle the traffic volume that his network is seeing these days. With laptops, smartphones, tablets and video game consoles, students are hitting university Wi-Fi networks with more traffic than ever before.

“In the higher education environment, it doesn’t come down to the number of access points a controller can handle, but how much traffic flow can go through the controller until there’s a degradation of service,” Mays said. “So if they’re saying [a virtual wireless LAN controller] can handle 1000 access points, that’s wonderful. But if I get to 650 and I start seeing degradation of services, then to me it’s only handling 600 to 650 access points.”

Joe Rogers, senior network engineer at the University of South Florida (USF) wouldn’t make use of a virtual wireless LAN controller because the controllers for his Cisco-based 802.11n network are located in distributed communications nodes across the campus. Each of these nodes is filled with routers, switches and wireless LAN controllers, but no hypervisor hosts.

“From a traffic engineering perspective, placing the controllers in these nodes keeps the tunneled traffic local to that area of our fairly large campus,” Rogers said. “If we were to centralize our controllers back in our data centers on our [VMware] ESX infrastructure, we'd end up tunneling all of that client traffic back to our data center before handing it off to the wired infrastructure. Client traffic would end up traversing our backbone at least twice, once tunneled from the controllers and then once again headed to wherever it was destined.  While I like seeing our backbone utilization numbers grow, this seems a bit wasteful.”

A smaller enterprise or university with a collapsed backbone that aggregates all its campus infrastructure in a data center could benefit from a virtualized wireless LAN controller, Rogers said. Given that he has no ESX hosts in his communications nodes, he doesn’t see the value for his campus.

Wireless LAN management on the iPad

Meru also introduced E(z)RF-on-the-Go+, a native iOS app for managing Meru wireless LAN infrastructure via iPads and iPhones. Many vendors have started offering  mobile network management apps to customers as smartphone and tablets have become more popular.

“It includes events and alerts and allows the network manager to drill down to the client or device level,” Schiff said. “Anything connecting to the network through the mobile infrastructure is visible, as well as the status of the controllers themselves. All of it is visible from this app.”

“We like their E(z)RF management suite,” Mays said. “On the iPad, that’s interesting to me because right now we have to log in from home and go through our gateway. We have to authenticate to our network. Then we have to log into the controllers. If you’re using an iPad, you can log in from anywhere to troubleshoot the network. So there’s a convenience factor there.”

For Villanova, which uses Cisco Prime for its network management, an iPad friendly app would be welcome, said Mays.

“[Cisco Prime] works OK, but a lot of their widgets are Flash-based. They don't work very well on the iPad, but they would work on a tablet that supports Flash, like Android. A native app that worked really well on [the iPad] would be great. I'd love for Cisco or any other vendors to come out with that.”

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Shamus McGillicuddy, News Director

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