CTS 075: Controller vs Controller-less?

Today’s wireless networks can be built using controller-based hardware or controller-less (cloud managed). Which solution is best for your needs depends on what the requirements are.

Wi-Fi Question

Thanks Matt for submitting a question to the podcast:

Hi Guys,

I’m fairly experienced with networking but just starting to focus on wifi for my current employer.

I’ve been listening for a few months now and have heard mentioned a couple of time in regard to the placement of APs in an office environment that they should be in hallways not rooms, also, that in dense environments some 2.4 radios should be turned off.

We have an upgrade happening at the moment and I am considering the AP placement, particularly around larger meeting rooms (~20 seats). Most of our offices are open plan with a large meeting/board room at one end so AP’s are generally in the open but would it also be best to include one in the large meeting room itself?

More generally, what is the technical reason for hallways not rooms and why disable some 2.4 radios and how to calculate which APs to disable?

Really enjoying a different focus and the podcasts have been a great source of knowledge, also considering sitting the CWNA exam soon.

Looking forward to future podcasts, keep up the great work and content.

Listen to the episode for our responses to Matt’s question.

Controller vs Controller-less

What’s the best model to go with today. Should a controller be purchased for the network and utilize centralized traffic forwarding? Or should a controller-less model be a better fit. There’s no hardware controller involved to purchase and updates are done regularly.

François and I tackle some of these points at a high level.

Here are some of the topics we discuss:

Controller-based

  • Centralized
  • Tunneled traffic
  • Hardware costs (CapEx)

Controller-less

  • Locally switched traffic
  • Features added regularly
  • No controller hardware
  • Licensing (OpEx)
  • Examples
    • Meraki
    • Mojo
    • Aerohive
    • Open Mesh
    • Ubiquiti

Other

  • Cisco Mobility Express
  • Aruba Instant
  • Virtual controller
  • Can be tunneled or locally switched

Which is better for you?

The universal answer is, it depends. There are many questions to ask which involves your technical team and management. Do you prefer to have granularity over your WLAN and have ultimate control? Does your team have the expertise to manage a controller? Maybe you need that extra troubleshooting you get when accessing the command line interface.

Many times cost is a big factor. Purchasing a physical controller can take a big chunk of your budget. If you need redundancy you have to buy more than one controller. Cloud-based management of access points gives you less control or flexibility due to the vendor owning the cloud. But on the upside, you get updates much faster, newer features, and easier management of your wireless network.

So it always depends on your needs and requirements.

What do you think is the best model and why?

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About the Author
Rowell, CWNE #210, is a network engineer in Higher-Ed. He enjoys working with wireless networking technologies and loves to share and engage with the community. You can connect with him on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook.

9 comments on CTS 075: Controller vs Controller-less?

  1. Jim says:

    I dislike placing APs in hallways, especially university dormitories, because of Hidden Node issues.

    I pity the poor freshman who connect their PS4s and XBox Ones to WiFi – only to get fragged because of lag everytime the kids across the hall stream Netflix.

    Nice compare and contrast with WLCs vs. Cloud. Sad, but I still see autonomous deployments from time-to-time. My personal pick would be a Cisco WLC and a Digi.

    1. Rowell says:

      I dislike hallway APs too. We need some in the hallways but not all!

  2. Matt Chan says:

    Hi Rowell,
    I greatly appreciate the time you and Francois took to explain the thinking around the answers to my questions, that clarifies things quite a bit for me. Still I think I also see some site survey and analysis tools are required before we go too much further.

    It was also interesting regarding the discussion between cloud and wlc managed, I’m involved in a Cisco deployment at the moment using virtual controllers running on ESX, significantly cheaper than the physical controllers assuming one has an ESX environment available but the licensing requirements are still there of course.

    I’ve also been able to get hands on small Meraki and Aerohive implementations.

    Anyway, looking forward to putting some of your tips into action and as always can’t wait for the next episode, time to download some of the back catalog!

    Cheers,
    Matt

    1. Rowell says:

      Looks like you have a lot of options available to you 🙂 Thanks for taking the time to listen to the episode and I hope you enjoy the others.

  3. Brian White says:

    Mojo Networks is Cloud-based and controllerless but allows you to tunnel traffic on a per-SSID basis to a centrally located network appliance (the Mojo Multiservice Platform). You can even have some SSIDs tunneled, and some SSIDs locally-bridged–even on the same AP.

    The best of both worlds!

    1. Rowell says:

      I’ll have to spin up my Mojo APs and try this out. It has taken me a while to get used to Mojo’s management interface but I did like the features available to me.

  4. BruceR says:

    I looks like most of the big players have a controller-less cloud version now. I know Ruckus now have a cloud version.

    Ruckus also have Unleashed which is their small scale offering, using one AP as the master to control a small number of APs.

    One tweak you did not mention was buying on-premise versions of the cloud offering running as VM. Aerohive offer this, I think Meraki do too. It works for more conservative organisations with big investments in VM already. It also offers a more capex heavy purchase options while retaining some of the cloud advantages.

    Also, I know with Aerohive you can run an in-house tunnel endpoint as a VM so that you can tunnel traffic in the same way that you can with a controller. This is great for guest networks, dumping traffic onto Internet only rather than corporate networks.

    1. Rowell says:

      If an org was to go with a cloud-managed solution but want to bring that management on-premises what would they gain? They still need to maintain that infrastructure. You also lose out on having access to the management interface from anywhere (without having to VPN in.)

      Do you lose any features when doing on-premises in a VM?

      1. BruceR says:

        I’m short, there is still a lot of resistance to cloud computing in some organisations. Offering to let the organisation run servers in house offsets the fear factor. I think it’s mainly fear of smaller companies ceasing to exist overnight.

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