Unlikely Twins: Cloud-managed Wi-Fi and Software-defined WLAN

Years back in the early days of wireless LAN technology, Wi-Fi installations were only used selectively. Managing those networks was relatively easy as they often consisted of only one or a few wireless devices.

But Wi-Fi quickly became a key technology in connecting devices and people all over the globe and in enabling access to the online world. This led to an explosion in the number of wireless connections and turned Wi-Fi into a key communication technology. Nowadays wireless is everywhere, from free Wi-Fi hotspots in shopping malls to wireless access even on mountain peaks.

WLAN installations have been growing constantly, expanding in scope and—due to the multitude of services that wireless networks have to provide today—they have also become increasingly complex. Keeping these networks manageable has become a real challenge!

Unsurprisingly, all manner of new management and monitoring approaches have appeared. Because soon after the first larger wireless LAN installations were implemented, the question that quickly arose was: How do we configure and manage them? We have come a long way from standalone devices to wireless controller-based and cloud-managed Wi-Fi, but this evolution is well worth taking a closer look at.

Standalone/Autonomous Solutions

In the beginning there were standalone Wi-Fi solutions only: Standalone here means that each access point (AP) acts autonomously as an individual entity and works separately from other devices. All of the devices are managed independently, and there is no central system. Consequently, changes to the configuration have to be carried out on each device individually.

Standalone solutions are appropriate for smaller scenarios, where a couple of APs are all you need for decent Wi-Fi coverage. A typical example would be a wireless enabled router providing Wi-Fi in a small office or at home.

When wireless installations grew in scale, with numerous APs spread across large areas and with high numbers of mobile clients using them, the need arose for an alternative solution. Up until then, admins had to configure every single device manually, as wireless networks were becoming unmanageable.

Wireless Controllers

Larger Wi-Fi installations demanded a more scalable and centralized solution for admins to handle them. To solve this problem, WLAN vendors created physical wireless LAN controllers (WLCs) to concentrate the management into a single location. A WLC acts as single choke point for configuration, communication and often for policy enforcement as well. APs themselves lose their individual “intelligence” and the WLC becomes the “brain” for the entire wireless network.

LANCOM Wireless LAN Controllers

Where autonomous wireless installations solely operate a ‘data plane’, i.e. for the data sent or received by the wireless devices, controllers add the ‘control plane’ with the data necessary for controlling and configuring the wireless network. The control plane enables a collection of wireless access points to function together as a large, single network.

This allows for easy and quick configuration of multiple AP’s without having to manually configure or manage each one individually. As a result, scalability improved greatly as a WLAN controller easily allows the addition of more AP’s to the network and reduces deployment and management complexities through centralized management and configuration. However, as the management of larger installations became more complex, so did the job for admins.

Particularly benefiting from this development were medium-sized companies and enterprises with large scale wireless networks and well-trained IT personnel. Other use cases include large campus networks and installations in other high density environments, such as concert halls or sport stadiums.

Cloud-managed Wi-Fi

As technology changes over time and business models evolve, enterprises are seeking more efficient and cost-effective ways of buying and maintaining their networking hardware. This is all the more when managing numerous locations with little or

no on-site IT administration. The advent of cloud-managed Wi-Fi has proven to be one way of reducing costs while making it easy to implement scalable networks.

Similar to handling a wireless network with the help of a WLAN controller, cloud-managed Wi-Fi is a centralized way of configuring and managing a wireless network. But there is no need for a physical device any longer. While the WLC in a controller-based network can only manage the APs at its specific location, cloud-based Wi-Fi is always centralized even when managing multiple locations of a company’s network.

Cloud-managed Wi-Fi solutions are usually a good choice for enterprises with the right profile, i.e. many locations and limited IT personal, as it helps to take professional, large-scale, enterprise wireless LAN to locations that networking experts would otherwise be unable to serve.

The Advantages of Cloud-managed Wi-Fi

One thing which is pretty obvious in a cloud-managed wireless scenario is the lack of a WLAN controller. This saves the initial high investment costs (CAPEX) for the device itself as cloud-based systems are paid monthly on a subscription basis (OPEX). This move away from buying appliances to paying for services, such as maintenance and monitoring, is the major shift in network management in recent years. Furthermore, it has given rise to an interesting and profitable managed service offering known as “Wi-Fi as a Service”.

With one central point of access, there is no need to send a technician or networking engineer for configuration and maintenance of network appliances: These are connected to the internet and are thus accessible from all around the globe at any time of the day.

A cloud-based management platform also makes network monitoring much easier. A remotely accessible system dashboard is available from anywhere in the world, and 24/7 network health-checks, alerting functions and predictive monitoring have become common practice.

Another major advantage is the high scalability. If an enterprise is growing quickly and needs additional wireless networks at their new locations, additions to the company’s network are implemented incredibly easily. Due to zero-touch deployment of the pre-configured devices, together with an automated setup, no manual configuration is required. Thus networks are highly flexible for adaptions and changes which might occur over time.

Similarly, remote configuration makes it quick and easy to add new features like Quality of Service (QoS) or other optimization tools for the wireless network, and if needed these can be rolled out to the entire network or to a specific location. Better mobile device management and other Wi-Fi features such as Client Management have improved the user experience and the overall performance of wireless networks.

Furthermore, overall network security is improved as centralized updates and security patches are rolled-out much quicker than by any admin who has to start updates manually. In the event that a rollback to a former configuration becomes necessary, cloud-based management also offers a clear advantage: Formerly backups of the network configuration had to be triggered by the admin, whereas cloud‑based systems perform regular backups automatically. This makes it easier and faster to revert to the last functioning configuration.

Cloud? Yes! But Software-defined!

Nowadays almost all networking vendors have a cloud-based WLAN system in their portfolio, so why bother about the differences?

Well, we at LANCOM take network management one step further, one which can rightly be called a disruptive paradigm shift thanks to software-defined technology. The basic principle behind software-defined networking (SDN) is the shift away from a purely device-centric to a network-centric approach to the configuration of networks. Whenever new networks are created, you only have to define the broad type of network. The actual implementation and configuration of the network appliances is carried out automatically by centrally controlled software and the devices themselves.

While conventional cloud-based Wi-Fi solutions merely configure single devices like access points – still with the help of an administrator acting behind the scenes – SDN creates a complete virtual image of the networking infrastructure. We start with an “overlay”, by assigning certain parameters to the desired networks and then distribute them to the locations where they are to be implemented. All further configurations on the devices are then automatically distributed by the software.

So the biggest advantage of network management using SD-technology is the significant time and cost savings in setting up, monitoring and managing networks. This gives companies maximum quality and agility at lower costs and error rates.

SD-WLAN as part of the bigger SD story

Just in case you’re wondering why we continue to develop and sell wireless LAN controllers when the future lies with the cloud and SDN, we can assure that there are and will be scenarios where circumstances or requirements demand an on-premises solution. We will continue to support all three different possibilities—standalone, by controller, or by cloud—and we will not be forcing anybody to take any particular direction. Whatever fits a business best is also in our interest, and just how our customers want to manage their wireless networks is a decision we are happy to leave to them.

Still, as we have seen above, SD-WLAN can function as an entry point for some companies into the modern world of software-defined networking. For us it is an integral part of the bigger Hyper Integration story of integrating SD-WAN, SD-LAN and SD-WLAN into one central platform – our LANCOM Management Cloud. Because only when the complete networking infrastructure, the WAN, LAN and WLAN are managed and controlled together, from end-to-end and with the help of a single system, can SDN unfold its true potential.

For more detailed information on SD-WLAN and our hyper-integrated LANCOM Management Cloud, take a look at our website.

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