Wednesday 4 May 2011

WiFi as a Service

When the words "Wifi" and "Cloud" are used in the same sentence, it's usually in reference to a ubiquitous provider based in St Albans.  But although they may have picked a cool name, there is growing merit to the idea of providing Wifi for enterprise customers as a service, just like web hosting is today.

What it means to the enterprise customer base is that the management and cost of deploying an enterprise class wireless network is largely reduced or at least spread over time, and the risk of hardware obsolescence and the squeeze on controller bandwidth  becomes less of an issue.  

So why hasn't this method of deploying WiFi been done before?  It's largely down to the manufacturers ability to support this type of deployment architecture, that was until recently based on sending WiFi traffic back to a centralised cluster of controllers where is was processed, marked, dropped, prioritised or spat out to its destination.  Up until 12 months ago, this was the norm and claims of this architecture being a bottleneck  were met with marketing sneers.  But as is always the case with technology vendors, a lousy feature is only lousy until it has been implemented, and now the bottleneck problem magically exists.  To give them credit, it wasn't really until 802.11n started becoming more widely deployed, that controller bottlenecks were a real world problem.  However, the combination of 11n and the fact that most enterprises were recognising the cost benefits of architecting distributed wifi networks, has meant that distributing real intelligence to the APs while maintaining command and control in the centre, is probably the way forward - for now.

So if your friendly IT supplier knocks on the door and starts talking about WiFi as a service, what are they trying to sell you?  First of all, only 2 hardware vendors currently offer solutions that you could truly call "Cloud WiFi".  Motorola and Aerohive.  Both have access points with enough real intelligence to filter, firewall, inspect, process, switch frames and route packets and perform RF management functions without the constant need for a controller, and both have features that allow the slicing and dicing of controller functions for different end customers.  In both cases, the controller is out of the data path, and acts only in a configuration and policy management function, and this means it can be hosted anywhere.   In most cases, the end customer has firewalled access to his or her own policies, rules and statistics and shares the cost of the hardware and software with other like minded IT managers through the WiFi Service Provider.  They may even lease the AP hardware.

Personally I can see this working in principal, but there is one sticking point for me.  Just as Cpanel and Plesk allow the user of a shared hosting platform to perform common tasks without worrying about the underlying platform, so there needs to be a equivalent for managed, hosted WiFi.  In that way, the end customer can choose and change the colour and brand of the APs they want hanging on the ceiling, and not be concerned about learning a new, complex and vendor specific configuration back-end.  Believe me, the complexity of configuration is going to get worse before it gets better, and by then, we'll have a new architecture paradigm anyway.  Anyone for fat APs?


  1. An interesting read. WiFi as a service is here and now with Meraki Cloud Based services. Out of band so very secure and so easy to deploy as a managed service with revenue return.

  2. Definitely Andrew. Meraki have been making good inroads in the UK since I wrote this article, and from what I see of their service (via an online demo facility) it looks great, and I found it easy to use too. I look forward to seeing their feature list grow because I believe they could be a big contender.