Cloud

Cloud-controlled Wi-Fi: Growing a network with SaaS

Nick Hardiman looks at one of the players in the cloud-controlled Wi-Fi space. For SMBs, it's possible to grow a global network and manage it from the cloud.

Aerohive Networks sell wireless LAN access points and provide centralized control using cloud-enabled control panels. Buy a few little boxes, rent a cloud service, and you have an enterprise network.

But why? I've got a little box with antennas in my house and I don't need centralized control. Okay, a domestic network is nothing like an enterprise network, but what does Aerohive do for Wi-Fi?

Network history, from protocol wars to captive web portals

Networking has radically changed over the decades. The 1980s was the decade of the protocol wars. TCP/IP was around, but it wasn't a contender. Governments backed the OSI model, all DEC computers talked DECnet and IBM were pushing SNA. Connecting computers with low-level networking technologies like token ring and thick Ethernet was as much fun as herding cats. The 1990s was about office flood-wiring, providing Ethernet ports to cubefarms. The 2000s spread the Wi-Fi brand and Wi-Fi hotspots around the world (IEEE 802.11 standards and WLAN Access Points weren't cool enough).

Now the Internet and wireless protocols are universal we can concentrate on the clever stuff --making networks more flexible, more secure, and more accessible. Office Wi-Fi enables guest access, conference Wi-Fi enables real-time tweets and shopping mall Wi-Fi enables your friends to save you from a disastrous fashion purchase. When you use your BYO device to connect to the local Wi-Fi hostspot, authenticate to a captive web portal, and browse the web, you are reaping the benefits of decades of networking improvements. Getting a device onto a network is no longer the hard part.

The old enterprise wireless LAN

Here's how a basic enterprise wireless LAN works.

The company attaches WLAN access points on the LAN. The company issues every employee with an approved device. Each device contains MDM (Mobile Device Management) software. The access points allow the approved devices onto the LAN and security software in the network talks to an MDM agent on each device. Simple.

The new enterprise wireless LAN

Here are a few situations where the simple approach doesn't work.

The enterprise goes BYOD. Employees use their own consumer devices and they don't contain any MDM software. These devices need secure access to resources on the corporate network, without relying on MDM software. Aerohive options include multiple SSIDs, captive portal, network credentials, and MAC checks.

Visiting consultants can use the network, but only to get to the Internet. No way are they being allowed anywhere near corporate data stores. The guest network can be separated using VLANs, and Aerohive firewalls stop other traffic.

All the salespeople use Apple products. They expect to be able to print and use the projector to Powerpoint people to death. They haven't got a clue what multicast DNS is, and they don't care about firewalls unless they get in the way. Which will cause swearing. An Aerohive Bonjour gateway handles the zero-conf networking and connects iPads with Apple services like AirPrint and AirPlay.

Everyone's device contains a shiny new 802.11n radio, except the boss who uses an 802.11b laptop from the Ark. If the network goes at that pace, everyone (except the boss) suffers. Aerohive adjusts the data rates for each device.

Aerohive hardware and software

The products are basically access points attached to networked computers that run HiveOS (Aerohive's own operating system). They are less dumb terminals linked to a central machine and more units that carry out their orders.

Aerohive sells a range of boxes for different environments.

  • The AP170 is ruggedized for the great outdoors.
  • The AP110 is a small box with no visible antenna.
  • The AP350 has so many antennas it looks like a robot spider.

The central control comes in the form of a SaaS control panel called the Cloud Services Platform. An enterprise administrator can manage the network using a web browser. (See the Configuration tab below in this screenshot on the Aerohive website.)

The new competitive advantage

Getting a device onto a network is no longer the hard part. The company that comes up with better features, solves problems, or replaces complicated configurations with simple solutions can find global success (at least until Cisco notices and assimilates the business -- resistance is futile).

Networking technology keeps changing. The building industry has been around a lot longer than the IT industry, and it does not regularly make all its materials obsolete. Just as buildings have a foundation, skeleton, cladding, and fittings, the Internet has a hardware foundation, OS skeleton, and application fittings (Okay, it's not a great analogy - if you can come up with a better one, please feel free to add it to the comments below). Anyone walking around with a smartphone in their pocket is carrying hardware, OS, and applications that did not exist a couple years ago.

An enterprise can't rely on unmanaged wireless devices to meet the needs of its staff. It needs to offer access from far-flung branch offices and central offices, to people with many needs and devices. Aerohive offer flexible devices that can deal with the clever stuff like firewall policy, tunnels, and VPN.

About

Nick Hardiman builds and maintains the infrastructure required to run Internet services. Nick deals with the lower layers of the Internet - the machines, networks, operating systems, and applications. Nick's job stops there, and he hands over to the ...

2 comments
Michael Kassner
Michael Kassner

Where you got your opinion of existing enterprise Wi-Fi networks, but you need to reassess what you think currently exists, at least in the US.

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