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Cisco Meraki adds 802.11ac APs to cloud-managed Wi-Fi

The Cisco Meraki Cloud Networking Group has announced a cloud-managed Wi-Fi 802.11ac access point -- the Cisco Meraki MR34 -- for SMBs.

Cisco System's Cloud Networking Group announced a new cloud-managed Wi-Fi 802.11ac access point, the Cisco Meraki MR34. Small and medium-sized businesses will be able to provide wireless access to more users and devices while managing their wireless network from any location, via the cloud.

Small and medium-sized business (SMB) networks are supporting more devices, users and remote locations, just like large enterprises. A cloud-managed Wi-Fi architecture can help smaller IT teams manage this complex network environment more efficiently while cutting operational and deployment costs.

"As [the industry] transitions into an era of leaner IT and we see increasing uptake of cloud services and applications, enterprise IT is looking for increased automation of IT infrastructure, process and application rollouts," said Rohit Mehra, vice president of network infrastructure research at Framingham, Mass.-based IDC.

Cisco Meraki cloud-managed Wi-Fi: Simple to deploy, manage

A cloud-managed Wi-Fi environment can simplify installation and management for businesses that may not have the IT resources that large enterprises typically have. The Cisco Meraki MR34 access point allows SMBs to cost-effectively scale their wireless network, said Sanjit Biswas, vice president and general manager of Cisco's Cloud Networking Group.

The Milpitas Unified School District in Milpitas, Calif., a 13-school district serving 10,000 students from elementary to high school, chose Meraki as the vendor for its first wireless network last year, said Chin Song, director of technology for the school district.

The Milpitas school district wanted to transition from its overworked computer labs to allow for "flexible learning," with mobile devices for students and teachers, Song said. Meraki was able to help the IT team quickly deploy a 600-plus access point 802.11n network for the school district.

Song and his team liked Meraki's cloud-based Wi-Fi for its speed of deployment and manageability, Song said. "We have two technicians and two network managers who oversee the entire environment, and the Meraki dashboard is second to none," he said. "Our small staff has visibility from anywhere, and all the updates get taken care of remotely."

The MR34 wireless access point is a plug-and-play offering, Biswas said. The access point is backward-compatible with previous wireless standards -- including 802.11a, b, g and n -- allowing businesses to support older Wi-Fi clients with the new infrastructure.

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MR34 can also operate in a mixed environment, Biswas said. "Businesses could have an 802.11ac network and an 802.11n network, all on the same campus."

The Milpitas school district will install MR34 access points for 802.11ac support this upcoming school year, Song said. "The ability for us to have not only more bandwidth, but support more devices per access point, is very important for us, as we are supplying Chromebooks for students to use during class to supplement their education," he said.

The MR34 access point has three radios: a legacy wireless standard radio, an 802.11ac radio, and a dedicated security and radio frequency monitoring radio for protection against wireless attacks and congestion.

"The third radio protects against the threats that many businesses are worried about, and [Cisco] wanted to dedicate some hardware to help IT manage those concerns easily from the cloud," Cisco's Biswas said. "IT won't need a PhD in networking to know what's going on within their wireless network."

Cloud-managed Wi-Fi from one dashboard

Businesses can manage their cloud-based Wi-Fi environment -- including MR34 access points -- from a Cisco Meraki cloud dashboard. The dashboard will allow IT to centrally apply application and security policies -- including prioritizing traffic from voice and video conferencing -- while blocking unwanted traffic such as peer-to-peer file sharing.

"If you're building on a network for one office or 50 branch offices, it's equally simple -- the business can plug in these [access points], and all the complexities are handled on the back end," Cisco's Biswas said.

Businesses can also choose to have their cloud-based wireless environment managed by Cisco's managed service provider partners via the Cisco Meraki Managed Services Dashboard, which was recently announced at the Cisco Partner Summit.

How pervasive will cloud-based wireless environments become?

Cisco launched its Cloud Networking Group after acquiring Meraki. Cisco is targeting its cloud-based wireless products at businesses in transition to more cloud-based services. Cisco is maintaining the cloud-based Wi-Fi products of Meraki as a separate product line and it does not plan to merge those products with its existing Aironet WLAN products managed by on-premises controllers. "Cisco will still offer either architecture to businesses," Cisco's Biswas said.

The newly launched Cloud Networking Group allows Cisco to appeal to two different market segments, said Mike Fratto, principal analyst of enterprise network systems for Washington, D.C.-based Current Analysis Inc. "Meraki is all about ease of use and installation, whereas the Cisco Aironet line is designed more for larger campus installations, with more granular access and customization within the access points," he said.

Not every business will be interested in cloud-managed Wi-Fi, IDC's Mehra said. "The sweet spot for cloud-managed wireless LANs is certainly the midmarket distributed enterprise, especially specific verticals such as retail, education and hospitality," he said.

These verticals are seeing some of the earliest demand for 802.11ac adoption, thanks to large numbers of guest users and new devices on the network, he said.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Gina Narcisi, news writer, and follow @GeeNarcisi on Twitter.

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