2011: Year of the (Wireless) Cloud

The cloud isn't just the most important trend in IT - it's also essential to the future of mobility. We're already seeing a lot of activity here, with 2011 perhaps becoming the pivot point in the market's overall thinking from 3G/4G to WLAN management.

I have argued for some time that the future of mobility absolutely must be in the cloud. It makes little sense to me for handsets to become tiny versions of the PC, with all of the operational expense, bugs, training costs, and the potential for all the usual viruses, malware, and etc. Of course, if my vision of a thin-client/cloud server model is to come to pass, we've got to significantly beef up carrier wireless network capacity. That's happening now, with new HSPA+ and LTE services coming on line, and carriers also making the necessary improvements to backhaul. Couple that with Wi-Fi in handsets for use indoors and in high-density locales, and the concept of device-independent reliable continuous connectivity doesn't seem so bizarre after all.

Equally interesting is the trend of moving the management plane of even large-scale WLAN installations into the cloud, with the console implemented within a browser.  With the primary differences between SMB and enterprise-class WLAN products essentially a function of management capabilities and scalability (and, granted, specialized features in some cases), think of the doors that open when the capabilities of these two classes of WLAN converge. Cloud-based management has evolved rapidly over the past two years and numerous implementations are now serving customers across the globe.

The idea isn't new. Aruba's AirWave product was available as a cloud service in the form of AirWave OnDemand. It mysteriously disappeared and I'm trying to find out why. But the idea is clearly otherwise solid, with established players and new entrants appearing. Just for example:

- Aerohive's HiveManager Online enables cloud-based management of the company's APs, and the company recently acquired Pareto Networks, adding cloud-based routing, VPN, and other services to its roster. Everything in the cloud? Not quite, but the direction here is more than clear.

- Meraki pioneered and has been offering a Web-based WLAN solution for their APs for some time, with obvious appeal to those looking for an improved experience over the SMB products typically available via consumer electronics retail channels. Meraki products are now at the core of 13,000 networks, all managed from the cloud.

- D-Link recently announced their DAP-2555 AP, based on the CloudCommand cloud-based management platform from OEM provider (this is also significant) PowerCloud Systems. This is indeed interesting: D-Link is one of the largest players in the SMB space; can their competitors be far behind? And look for D-Link to extend Web-based management to wired products as well.

- WLAN security leader AirTight Networks, who have been shipping a cloud-based IDS/IPS solution for some time, recently enhanced that product with an access offering, a very logical addition when you think about, and one that could really expand the company's appeal. After all, security needs to be a component of any installation, and it's easier to add access when one already has security than vice-versa.

- I recently spoke with Zscaler and saw a demo of their cloud-based security solution. The idea here is to provide security services that are independent of any particular client platform, and to do so via (you guessed it) a cloud service. This approach is also quite likely, IMHO, to become broadly influential over time as, again, IT organizations outsource more and more of their operations to service firms based in the cloud.

All of this is very much in keeping with that other big trend in IT, virtualization, in this case applying vendor, integrator, dealer, or other third-party resources to provision key infrastructure services. And while this is an obvious direction for SMBs, I can see this concept easily growing into much larger organizations as well. It's just, in summary, another form of outsourcing, and such will remain a key strategy as firms across essentially every industry (and, again, globally) seek to minimize OpEx, as, of course, they should. So, is 2011 really the year of the cloud in wireless? It could be. I'm devoting significant time here: we're now in the early stages of planning the next series of Network World tests to find out just how good today's cloud-based WLAN management products are. More on that shortly.

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