Is the Campus Ready for Cloud-Managed Wi-Fi?

By Rowell Dionicio, Blog Contributor
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Traditionally, campuses with a large Wi-Fi installation are deployed with a controller-based architecture. In today’s environment, with more and more devices connecting to the Wi-Fi network, IT is asked to do more with less.

When the next upgrade cycle approaches, one is tasked with investigating a new architectural model: cloud-managed Wi-Fi.

The demands for Wi-Fi access have grown within the campus. This includes the infrastructure required to support those demands. A large campus can manage hundreds or thousands of access points. Not only do those access points provide coverage, but also they need to meet capacity needs of the lecture halls and interactive teaching in the classrooms.

We’re seeing less wired connectivity as students and staff move towards a mobile lifestyle. With all the demands and strain being placed on today’s Wi-Fi networks, controllers are now becoming a huge bottleneck in the network. The controller is the central data and control plane of a large number of access points. The IT staff may not be armed with the expertise required to manage and troubleshoot the complexities of wrangling the day-to-day operations of a multi-controller environment.

Licensing a controller with the right amount of access points can have its own challenges. No matter how the process is simplified, it takes the focus away from real productivity. When staff should be optimizing, improving, or resolving problems they are instead entangled in a web of licensing troubles.

A cloud-managed Wi-Fi network aims to help simplify the process. Some may see this architecture as limiting by removing the traditional command-line interfaces altogether. However, in a fast-paced environment, IT staff cannot afford the time to be in the trenches of command lines. Technology has come very far to help get out of that manual workflow.

Cloud-managed Wi-Fi moves away from the centralized model and takes advantage of distributed networks. Access points connect to a management platform in the public or private cloud. All management is performed across an internet connection. Data isn’t traversing the public network to the cloud, but instead is switched locally on the network. In modern networks, most user access is cloud or SaaS applications, so it’s not critical to tunnel traffic back to a controller.

The real advantage of cloud-managed Wi-Fi comes in the form of configuration and management. It’s extremely simple to deploy hundreds of access points in just a matter of days. More often than not the access points are configured with the right parameters the moment it can communicate to the Internet. There’s a single pane of glass for the whole Wi-Fi network that is accessible from virtually anywhere using secure communications. There’s no need to VPN into a network to manually provision access points on a single controller.

Firmware and software updates used to take weeks or even months to schedule with a controller-based architecture. Rebooting a controller may take an act of extreme coordination and could create an impactful outage as each controller updates and each access point is subsequently rebooted. The resulting reboot storm could impact coverage over a large area for a significant period of time and be difficult to predict.

Cloud-managed access points simply receive their updates on a regular basis. Everything can be rebooted on a schedule that works for your organization, and all of it can be performed without lifting a finger late in the evening. And if that version of the update didn’t work or there was an issue, it is simple to roll back.

Now of course, with these easy to use features, constant updates and streamlined deployments, you’re bound to lose some control. Network and wireless professionals have a hard time reconciling this fact. They make unsubstantiated claims such as bad updates causing havoc on the network. However, objectively vendors have more riding on the cloud infrastructure. Thorough testing, quality assurance and more testing is a must.

As consumers of the cloud, we relinquish some control. Updates will be pushed to the access points on a regular interval. New features will be introduced to the cloud dashboard. Access points will eventually be unsupported. We will pay a subscription.But this is secretly the model we want. We want more updates, more fixes, more features, more support. We want more Wi-Fi. The best way to deliver it is through a cloud-managed architecture.

Is the campus ready? The real question is if the IT staff is ready to embrace this change for the sake of delivering a better Wi-Fi experience to the users.