The current, dominant architecture for enterprise Wi-Fi networks is to have a bunch of “thin” access points (APs) deployed for coverage with a number of controllers used as the “brains” of the deployment. The APs provide the connectivity to the devices and the controller acts as a central point of control for configuration, security and policy. This model is very common and has been in place now for about a decade.
However, the IT environment has changed and Wi-Fi architectures need to change along with it. The controller-AP model works in some scenarios, like deploying in large facilities with lots of people in them. But how many companies are like that now? My research shows that over 80% of employees now work outside the corporate headquarters, primarily in branch offices, and that’s where the main problems are for the current controller led model.
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Deploying Wi-Fi to distributed sites creates a challenge for IT departments. Let’s take a hypothetical case of an organization that is made up of a bunch of branch offices. Retail, professional services, legal firms, etc. all fit this bill. How do you put reliable Wi-Fi in that location? The APs get deployed then some decision has to be made as to whether I want to save money and have a controller at the headquarter service the branch Aps, or maybe the best way is to spend the money and put a local controller in. What if the goal is full survivability? Then two controllers are needed per location. For a highly distributed organization, this can be very expensive. This is why the deployment of an enterprise-wide wireless LAN often requires a significant amount of engineering services.
This challenge has not gone without notice, either. This is why there are so many start-ups trying to solve this problem. Meraki has a managed service with cloud-based controllers that eliminate any local controllers. Another start-up, Aerohive, has a solution that requires no physical controllers as the controller functionality is distributed across each AP. Adtran, through the acquisition of BlueSocket, has a solution where the controllers run on virtual machines. There are certainly lots of choices for IT leaders of distributed organizations to look at.
This morning, Aruba announced an upgrade to its “Instant” offering that brings many of these different features together. For those who aren’t familiar with Instant, it’s Aruba’s controller-less solution that allows a number of APs to be controller by a single AP. The upgrade allows Instant to scale. Unlike the first offering of Instant, the Enterprise version allows mobile devices to seamlessly roam between one Instant WLAN and another, across Layer 3 boundaries. It also offers the initial configuration of an Instant WLAN to be performed via a cloud-based service called Aruba Activate.
So instead of having to set up the network, fire up, configure and test each AP, companies that use Instant Enterprise can ship the APs where they need them, have them plugged in and when they connect to the network. Each AP will automatically look to the cloud and download the configuration for nearly instant provisioning. The Activate service enables Aruba’s distributors to ship access points directly to distributed sites – instead of shipping them to HQ locations for inventory management tasks by IT engineers. The engineers will no longer have to "unpack, record inventory data, re-pack, re-ship access points" from HQ to distributed sites. The time savings will obviously vary by how distributed and how big the Wi-Fi network is but Instant combined with Activate will bring some much needed simplicity to large scale wireless network deployments.
I like this announcement for other reasons as well. First, for a company like Aruba, which has had so much success with a certain deployment model (controllers and APs), it’s often hard to see the changes in the market coming, and I do think some of the startups had found success in certain verticals because they offered an alternative technology. Instead of fighting this, Aruba built its own solution that can be run as an alternative to or in conjunction with its controller solution.
The other thing I like about Instant Enterprise is that it leverages the best of all worlds with respect to alternative deployment models. The controller model isn’t going away any time soon so companies can deploy that in the larger locations. The controller-less solution can be leveraged in smaller, distributed locations. The cloud-based Aruba Activate can be used for centralized control and zero-touch provisioning. For customers that want to leverage a managed service, Activate can be used by VARs and systems integrators to build an Aruba-based managed service.
When it comes to Wi-Fi architecture, there’s no right answer. Each company is unique and the type of deployment will vary by number of mobile users, number of branch offices, the density of users within branches and other factors. Instant Enterprise allows customers to leverage the power of virtualization and cloud for controller-less options but still maintain a traditional deployment model where desired. This will put Aruba back into the mix when a customer is looking for a controller-less solution, something some of those other competitors won’t be happy about.