How to Distinguish Between Cloud-managed and Cloud-controlled Wi-Fi

By Special Guest
Manish Desai, cloud management expert, Aerohive

Cloud-based management certainly offers companies with benefits.  The ability to easily configure, manage and deploy networking devices are just a few of them.  Cloud service providers maintain full control of the infrastructure, the security measures in place to protect companies’ data, the maintenance cycles, and even the upgrade schedule. 

When it comes to using cloud management for wireless access points, it’s critical to get clarification on how a vendor associates the cloud with its access points. There’s a fundamental distinction between a true cloud-managed solution versus a cloud-controlled solution for wireless access points. 

Cloud-based Wireless Controller Solution

There are vendors currently that claim the wireless access points they sell are “100 percent cloud managed,” but this can be misleading unless you really investigate what this entails.  What these vendors really provide is a cloud-based wireless controller system.  The controller in the cloud is the control plane for the Wi-Fi infrastructure and the vendor’s wireless access points require the customer to connect to the cloud controller for full functionality.  In other words, the cloud is used to control the access points and the cloud’s primary function is not for “100 percent” management.  If the cloud goes down, so does the full functionality of your wireless network.

With a cloud-based controller, you are at the mercy of the cloud for your wireless connectivity, which will have serious ramifications in environments where continuous wireless network uptime is essential.  For example, in healthcare facilities, having continuous wireless access 24/7 for doctors and nurses is critical to help users access patients’ records, view patients’ prescription histories, or look at medical images.  In education, a loss of WLAN capabilities during any student testing is a failing proposition for teachers, students and IT.  In retail, losing PCI compliance due to WLAN WIDS being unavailable is not acceptable.  There are similar examples in virtually every industry, as the dependence on using an all wireless access layer becomes the standard.

In addition, these cloud-controlled vendors force customers to upgrade their networking devices when a vendor decides to upgrade their cloud platform.  The customers’ access points are in service and are working well, but a platform upgrade forces customers to fix something that is not broken. Customers are basically forced to upgrade when they may not be ready and they cannot use the cloud for management or configuration until the devices are upgraded. 

Cloud-managed Solution

As you consider vendors for cloud-managed wireless access points, consider those that offer a cloud-based network management solution that truly is 100 percent management.  The vendor’s cloud management system should not have a controller in the cloud, should not reside in the network control plane as controllers do, and should not be required for on-going Wi-Fi network operation. 

Certain controllerless Wi-Fi vendors offer access points that exclusively handle all control and data traffic.  This allows for unlimited scalability while eliminating bottlenecks, expensive controllers, single points of failure and latency.  The access points perform all aspects of authentication, association, fast/secure roaming, data forwarding, power and channel management, etc.  If the cloud goes down, the Wi-Fi stays up, and you can still reach mission-critical network resources such as file servers and printers.  This is a huge difference from vendors that place the controller in the cloud where customers’ access points will lose functionality and certain features like data roaming and Captive Web Portal if the cloud goes down.  

In addition, look for vendors that don’t force customers to upgrade their devices when there is update on the cloud management platform.  IT staffs, who are already stretched thin, won’t have to be forced into upgrading quickly and can focus on other immediate tasks on their radar. 

In the end, not all “cloud-managed” solutions are equal and it’s important to investigate each vendor’s cloud service offerings carefully.  A vendor that provides a pure cloud-enabled management solution for your wired and wireless network is an ideal solution for most organizations. 

Manish Desai is the cloud management expert at Aerohive in charge of all things cloud.

Edited by Alisen Downey

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