Wireless – Cloud vs. Controller

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At one or multiple points during your IT career, a wireless upgrade is inevitable. When that time comes, one of the key questions is whether to use on-premise or cloud managed WiFi. The decision is dependent on your business type, wireless requirements, current network design and, a most commonly overlooked area, scalability for future growth.

So, what are on-premise and cloud managed wireless network infrastructures and how are they different?

On-premises WiFi

In the early stages of wireless, businesses created “hotspots” or “wifi zones” where users could access a wireless network. They were typically deployed in lobbies, conference rooms, break areas and areas where wired ports were scarce.

These WiFi Hotspots were typically a commercial grade wireless routers, or a wireless access points (APs) that were managed independently of one another. They had their time and worked well if the wireless requirements of the organization were minimal.

With the mass adoption of smart devices, wireless demand grew and businesses needed to have wireless signal throughout their campuses. For a network administrator, it was not practical to manage so many APs individually. Multiple SSID’s were required along with their separate authentication types. Users were not stationary and roaming between APs was a nightmare as there was no communication between APs. Due to these issues and more, the development of wireless LAN controllers began.

The hardware-based controller centralizes WLAN intelligence. It oversees network APs and provides insight into the WLAN. Network administrators can modify wireless channels, signal strength and AP assignments. Users can seamlessly roam between access points.  In addition, control-plane and data-plane traffic is routed back to the wireless controller before being placed on the local data LAN. Recently on-premise solutions have begun to offer both physical and virtual controller options with the virtual controllers being hosted inside the virtual server infrastructure.

Cloud Managed WiFi

Cloud managed WiFi is comprised of APs connected to a virtual controller hosted by your company, through the wireless manufacturer or by a third party hosting company like VPLS Solutions. AP management takes place between the virtual controller and the local APs over an internet connection. Authentication is handled at the access points and some vendors’ APs have Radius Proxy to query a Radius server local/remote for user authentication.

Comparison

The following table outlines some of the major differences between the on-premise and cloud managed WiFi:

On-premises Cloud-Managed
Equipment Requires APs on-site, along with controller hardware and possibly secondary controller for failover.  A manager appliance to oversee the controllers is recommended in some larger deployments. Requires APs on-site but the architecture is controller-less. Management is done in the cloud offering no single point of failure in a well architected solution.
Centralized Management Deploying a controller at each site isn’t practical in distributed networks, such as branch offices. Centralized monitoring is also difficult. Because they are controller-less, cloud- managed WiFi solutions are well-suited to geographically-dispersed businesses. They also perform management functions in the cloud. Businesses have a single point of management regardless of where IT staff is physically located.
Upgrades  If in a high-availability setup, downtime can be minimized. Once the controller is rebooted, the APs can stop servicing clients. The APs firmware is upgraded centrally from the controller upon a successful upgrade to the controller. AP firmware and OS upgrades can be handled on a site per site, or per AP basis as required. Little downtime, as AP upgrades can be scheduled. Virtual controllers can be upgraded in most cases, without affecting the wireless networks business wide.
Scalability Network expansion requires planning, additional equipment and license purchases. Can keep pace with business growth. Businesses also avoid the inefficiencies associated with unused capacity.
Installation and Management Rack space and power are requirements to keep in mind. APs must be local to controller or have access to the controller by means of site to site communication. Simplified Installation. In some cases, APs are preconfigured before being shipped to a remote site.
Cost Require upfront capital expenses. Sometimes even redundant licenses are required for a secondary controller in failover scenarios.  Usually, once the controller is purchased, however, the ongoing support cost is relatively modest. Many vendors have Monthly or Annual subscriptions unless hosted in your environment. The cost of the annual subscriptions can add up over time, so a longer term ROI should be evaluated.  Also, some vendors’ wireless APs do not function when the support subscription lapses.  Understanding the reoccurring costs and the ramifications around the licenses is an important evaluation criteria of cloud managed WiFi.

Deciding which solution is right for you depends on your business requirements, budget and the technology investments you have already made. Before you deploy a wireless network, you will need to evaluate the factors listed above.

VPLS Solutions offers a full range of wireless consulting services including active and passive site surveys, deployment, configuration and troubleshooting. To arrange a consultation, site survey or a demo, please email us at sales@vplssolutions.com, or call 213-406-9080 today.