Cisco sees Wi-Fi market in transition to controller-less solutions

The Wi-Fi market has been moving to controller-less solutions, and Cisco appears to be walking the controller-less management walk

Cisco sees Wi-Fi market in transition to controller-less solutions
Credit: Reuters/Adnan Abidi

Last week Cisco held its quarterly call for investors. These calls are done to update the financial community on the state of Cisco’s business and discuss other trends that will impact the company in the near future. 

Because of Cisco’s massive size and dominant market share, the entire industry often looks to Cisco commentary to validate market transitions. One such transition was called out during the Q&A portion by Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins. 

+ Also on Network World: Cisco CEO Robbins: Wait til you see what’s in our innovation pipeline +

The wireless business at Cisco is currently going through an evolutionary change. The overall business was down 2 percent due to softness with E-rate funding and declines in traditional Wi-Fi controllers. However, this was offset by strong growth with Cisco’s cloud-managed solution, Meraki

After the prepared statements, Ittai Kidron from Oppenheimer specifically asked about the declines in wireless. Robbins address the issue with the following comments: 

“First of all is, the market is transitioning to a controller-less architecture, so in large part, our access points were actually positive, but the controller side of that business was down. Meraki was positive and then also we are pretty substantial recipient of E-rate business, so as that has moved out much more slowly than expected I think, that has also impacted that business. So, hopefully that gives you some color around those areas.” 

I found Robbins answers to be somewhat surprising given Cisco’s share in Wi-Fi controllers, but also refreshing. Historically vendors with large installed bases don’t like to admit markets are in transition and often fight the tide. During an analyst roundtable earlier this year Robbins said Cisco would never do that again and if there’s a trend that’s good for the customer, Cisco would help customers with that instead of trying to delay market evolution. It appears Robbins is staying true to his work and Cisco is indeed walking the controller-less management walk.

The move to controller-less solutions

The fact is, the Wi-Fi market has been moving to controller-less solutions because it’s an easier and faster way to deploy wireless access points. Over time, I expect the bulk of wired switching, security and other network infrastructure to shift to a cloud-based management model so they, too, can benefit from these solutions (Robbins said as much here).

Legacy management methodologies require engineers to log into network devices, normally one at a time, and use the command line interface to make whatever changes are necessary. This has given rise to expressions such as “CLI jockeys” to indicate high-level engineers who are proficient with this management style. 

In actuality, controller-less architectures have been around for some time and have been most aggressively evangelized by the likes of Mojo Networks and Aerohive, which really pioneered the industry as well as Meraki—acquired by Cisco in 2012 for $1.2 billion. The purchase raised an eyebrow at the time because of the steep purchase price. However, in hindsight, given how quickly the market has moved to controller-less, that price now looks like a steal. 

This does beg the question that if controller-less solutions have been available for some time, why the change now? The answer is speed. In every keynote I have seen Robbins give, he has discussed how digital transformation is accelerating the pace of innovation and business churn. Companies have to make decisions quickly and implement them before the competition, and this includes changes to the network. 

Legacy network management architectures, and I’ll include controllers in here, can be much slower to work with than controller-less, particularly for highly distributed organizations. I certainly don’t believe controllers are going away any time soon. There are some use cases where they still make sense. For example, large companies with lots of people in a single building will likely still prefer controller.

However, in a world that is becoming more dynamic and distributed, a controller-less solution provides significant speed, simplicity and accuracy benefits and is better aligned with the digital world.

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