Infrastructure management is moving to the cloud - wireless networks prove the case

Profile picture for user kmarko By Kurt Marko July 27, 2016
Summary:
The push to cloud services has already hit software-defined networks. But Kurt Marko sees wireless LANS as another cloud proof point. Using Ruckus Wireless as a use case, Kurt explains why the last vestiges of IT infrastructure are already moving to the cloud.

wireless networks
After five years, it's clear that Marc Andreessen's famous maxim about software eating the world needs a corollary: cloud-based software is eating the world. What Adobe, Microsoft and Oracle have learned the hard way is becoming widely apparent, even at technology firms where software is an accessory, not the main course: that users increasingly prefer their applications provided as a managed cloud service, not a self-installed product.

The rush to cloud is already apparent in the networking world, where as I wrote earlier this month, online services providing software-defined networks threaten to disrupt traditional carriers in the market for enterprise wide area connectivity. But cloud software is also becoming a preferred means of managing on-premise networks, notably wireless LANs (WLANs).

Traditionally run by local controllers, either embedded in each access point (AP) or centralized in an appliance or network switch, WLAN management is increasingly delivered as a vendor-managed cloud service, not standalone software. Like any other SaaS application, cloud WLAN management minimizes the drudgery, overhead and capital expense associated with a necessary infrastructure management activity and lowers the barriers to entry for sophisticated network management features that deters organizations like SMBs, schools and smaller retailers without a dedicated networking team.

Popularized by Meraki, which Cisco acquired in 2012, and embraced by Aerohive when it bought another pioneer of cloud controllers, Pareto Networks, cloud management is now available from almost all large WLAN vendors. The latest to follow the trend is Ruckus Wireless, recently bought by Brocade, which just released a service that I have been beta testing for the past month.

Although Ruckus has long been known for innovative radio frequency engineering, with proprietary support for directional beamforming long before its incorporation into the 802.11ac standard, it's software has been utilitarian if not noteworthy. The cloud service presents an opportunity to rethink how wireless networks should be managed, automate tasks and insulate non-specialists from the intricacies of WLAN configuration.

Cloud WLAN basics

Cloud WLAN management borrows a technique popularized by connected consumer devices like the Nest thermostat or Fitbit fitness band of using a Web portal as an administrative and reporting hub and where all control information passes from each endpoint, whether a smoke detector or wireless AP, to the cloud hub.

Like most wireless vendors, Ruckus used centralized network controllers for wireless management, user administration and traffic control (although last year it released a controllerless product, Unleashed, targeted at small installations that I covered here). The cloud service takes the place of these local controllers.

As with consumer devices, after creating a Ruckus cloud account, users assimilate/Borg each AP into the cloud from which they can be assigned to different wireless networks. Once in the Ruckus cloud, it's impossible to manage the APs independently. The Ruckus cloud includes all the basic features one expects of WLAN management software, like creating wireless networks (SSIDs), binding APs to networks, viewing connected clients and traffic statistics and setting up network authentication. It's all wrapped in a simple Web UI that is designed to minimize information overload, eliminate the learning curve and facilitate task automation:

ruckus-cloud-dashboard

Indeed, the Ruckus interface is probably too simple for WLAN pros since it doesn't yet expose features available on its traditional controllers. For example, manually setting radio channels is buried in a submenu that applies every AP in a particular location, making it impossible to create different networks for each frequency band.

Likewise, it's impossible to associate a wireless network with a particular VLAN. The training wheels and fail safes are by design since Ruckus targets the cloud service at less sophisticated users like SMBs, schools and restaurants with multiple locations, but without dedicated WLAN administrators.

ruckus-wireless-screen
The limitations of Ruckus's service are likely to be fleeting due to one of the biggest advantages of cloud software, the ability to frequently and non-disruptively introduce enhancements. Much like Gmail, Office 365 and Salesforce continuously improve, with bug fixes and feature enhancements coming out without users having to do anything, cloud-based infrastructure management software allows vendors like Ruckus to expose new features, tweak the interface and even patch device firmware without operator intervention. Indeed, during my time testing, Ruckus updated the website a couple of times and flashed my APs with the latest firmware. (Pictured left - Ruckus Wireless AP analytics)

My take - cloud management services become the norm

Much as the browser interface has become standard IT administrative interface, cloud services providing data collection, analysis, automation and predictive intelligence will eventually be the backend powering IT infrastructure management systems. Like other disruptive innovations, cloud management services start with limited features that appealing to entry-level users, as typified by the Ruckus cloud. However, they will follow the now-familiar curve of innovation towards meeting the needs of even the most sophisticated, tech-savvy organizations,  not just Mom and Pop shops.

The ability to consolidate administrative functions on a managed service that insulates IT organizations from the overhead of software management, expense of on-premise infrastructure and that can scale from one instance to thousands is too compelling to ignore.

Likewise, decoupling an infrastructure controller from the actual infrastructure managed, an abstraction that made virtual machines so powerful allows cloud services to both consolidate control across regions and locations and expose features in different ways by using both Web and mobile app interfaces. Indeed, the Ruckus mobile app is more convenient for routine checks and changes, such as creating a temporary guest network, than the Web.

The obvious concern is a vendor's ability to deliver the reliability, scalability and security required (and promised). While not to be minimized, these are easily solvable, as evidenced by other SaaS products, by building the management stack on top of an established IaaS platform like AWS, Azure or Google Cloud.

Cloud-based infrastructure software is a small, but illustrative example of an acceleration in overall cloud spending. Indeed, a recent Gartner estimate claims that "more than $1 trillion in IT spending will be directly or indirectly affected by the shift to cloud during the next five years" and I agree that "cloud computing one of the most disruptive forces of IT spending since the early days of the digital age."

As the Ruckus cloud illustrates, Gartner may be underestimating the trend by missing the use of cloud services to operate any remaining IT infrastructure. Gartner categorizes cloud spending using the familiar XaaS taxonomy and its model shows data center infrastructure migrating to IaaS. However it doesn't account for the rise of other SaaS products like cloud WLAN controllers or operations managements suites like Splunk or Sumo Logic that displace systems solely used to operate the data center systems that persist.

Although these services will likely run on a third-party IaaS, they represent added customer value that creates demand for 'stealth' IaaS capacity delivered as SaaS. Much like the Fitbit wearer doesn't know or care that he may be using AWS to see workout statistics, IT organizations will increasingly use SaaS management services built on a platform of industrial strength IaaS to manage on-site infrastructure.