Clearpath’s Blog on IT Infrastructure, Hybrid Clouds and IT Security

Why Wi-Fi: “But it works at home?”

Posted by Ramon Thomas on Tue, Jul 08, 2014 @ 02:06 PM
In large enterprise wireless deployments, there currently are few alternatives to the Cisco Unified Wireless Network when it comes to wireless infrastructure strategy. The core requirement, to provide a stable solution in large facilities with business critical wireless functions, needs the enhanced tuning features native to these traditional deployment methodologies.  I emphasis the word currently, because there is something on the horizon and it’s (I couldn’t resist) a cloud: specifically cloud wireless.Often, when faced with all the caveats that must be adhered to during wireless deployments, customers exclaim:
 
“How can it be that complex? I have Wi-Fi at home and it works great. This should be simple.”
 
It is easy to dismiss this comment as being based on an uninformed or misguided opinion as there is an inordinate amount of complexity that is involved in a typical wireless deployment. The problem with that approach is one minor thing:
 
They are absolutely correct!
 
Let’s first qualify this ideology. Home Wi-Fi solutions often lack the intricacy that businesses require. Concerns around density, security, roaming, and compliance models rarely impact home Wi-Fi deployments.  Although, it is the notion that the installation and integration should be seamless is a completely valid argument.
 
Business culture increasingly demands that corporations of all sizes provide some sort of wireless internet communication.  As that fact becomes more ubiquitous, improving the efficiency of the wireless installation and operational processes has become a major talking point amongst the engineering community. It is illogical to think that that once the RF analysis phase of a Wi-Fi project is conducted a typical employee should not be able to essentially “plug and play” a standard wireless deployment.
 
That drove Cisco to acquire the Meraki Cloud Wireless Solution. That’s correct, the buzz word “CLOUD”.
 
Let’s take a second to compare the infrastructure required for a typical wireless network solutionOur business wants to provide the following:
  • Centralized Management of Access Points
  • Traffic Shaping
  • Spectrum Analysis for troubleshooting
  • Connected Device Location Data
  • Standard Security Services via Encryption Algorithms
  • Employee Wireless with AD integration
  • Guest Wireless with Splash page / Facebook Integration
The traditional Cisco Unified Wireless solution for a standard indoor facility is comprised of the following:
 
CUWN:
  • Cisco 3702 series Access Points
  • Cisco Wireless LAN Controller
  • Cisco Prime Infrastructure
  • Cisco Mobility Services Engine
  • Cisco CMX , Context Aware Licensing
The installation, administration, and maintenance of all these various technologies can be extremely cumbersome for IT departments.
 
Meraki Cloud Solutions can achieve about 90% of the functionality provided by these devices with the following:
 
Cisco Meraki:
  • MR34 Access Points
  • Meraki MS series access layer switches
I know it appears magical, but that is because it is a solution rooted in fantasy (even if it is a nerdy fantasy).
 
Let’s take a look at the details of each solution comparing some key factors. We will refer to the Cisco Unified Wireless Network as CUWN.

 

Cost

Cisco Meraki has the advantage when it comes to the overall cost of the solution, hands down. This is due to the significant reduction in required hardware and the reduction of the necessity for ancillary technologies, such as modules for future addition for the second wave of 802.11ac integration and 3G/4G small cell technology CUWN provides in its high end 3702 series access points.  Cisco Meraki focuses on providing core wireless service for the needs of most common consumers and have perfected this practice. The Meraki solution does have mandatory license fees that will apply on an interim basis. The license length typically ranges from 1 to 5 years. The dashboard provides a 30 day countdown warning that a license will need to be updated.
 
CUWN does have some alternative offerings which lower the operating cost of the solution. This includes the 2700 series access points which are more cost efficient but lack the future proofing technology which differentiates the CUWN from the Cisco Meraki solution. Also, it is highly recommended that Cisco smart net be purchased in conjunction with any hardware purchase with the exception of access points. With the exception of the Mobility Service Engine, these devices can be virtualized - which can reduce cost. Unfortunately, this adds to the complexity of our next point of analysis: the installation phase.
 
Cost Advantage: Cisco Meraki
 

Installation

Cisco Meraki essentially requires a functioning internet connection with a DHCP server to allow access points to reach the internet and become configurable. The next steps are extremely elementary. Configuring predefined SSID’s and access policies takes less than 30 minutes that’s it. Even some of the more complex task such as active directory integration is extremely intuitive.  Once the first device is configured, it’s a matter of a simple copy and paste to configure the remaining devices.  This is similar to Prime Infrastructures template feature every device is essentially already a template that can be applied to new installs with ease.
 
A vast majority of customers will have the complete deployment operational in less than a full working day. In fact at Cisco Live the marketing engineer configured and deployed a working SSID for demo purposes within 10 minutes. As a test case and sad attempt at a bonding opportunity allowed my non-technical fiancé a shot at configuring a basic SSID, she was able to do it with little hassle. I do not recommend hiring her for any business critical deployments, but it is a testament to the simplicity of the initial deployment.
 
There is a point of criticism which is unavoidable being this is a cloud service, configuration changes have a noted delay. It is also pertinent to indicate that there are a few capabilities that are impossible to deploy without the purchase of a Cisco Meraki Switch as well as a Meraki Firewall.
 
CUWN is a highly developed deployment model. The process requires multiple design meetings and often many changes to the as-built configuration, based on compatibility concerns. The wireless devices sit on the core of the network, so traffic shaping and firewall policies often require adjustment to allow interoperability between devices.  Additionally, correct licensing is critical to the initial deployment. In virtual environments, the virtual server specifications must be adhered to definitively and may exhaust resources allocated to other business units. In order to achieve the optimal functionality from Prime Infrastructure, a Lifecycle license is needed, along with the addition of the Mobility Service Engine and context aware licensing. If these add-ons are not applied to the CUWN, then its capabilities are greatly reduced. The available features of the CUWN are robust and the deployment can be extremely granular but with granularity comes complexity. This is not a negative aspect of the overall product but when it comes to the initial deployment:
 
Installation  Advantage: Cisco Meraki
 

Maintenance

Cisco Meraki is a cloud service, so upgrades also occur remotely. When an upgrade is required the administrator has the ability to allow the upgrade to occur or delay the upgrade. There are also limited points of failure, as there are less pieces of hardware to maintain. Additionally, the Meraki solution also features processes within the UI help section that guide the user in implementing new features.The screen shot below displays this capability: cisco meraki capability resized 600 
Figure 1- Cisco Meraki New Features
 
Requesting assistance from Cisco Meraki engineers is extremely simple. All that is required is a simple note sent from the dashboard which alerts Cisco Meraki engineers of your issue. Response times are very quick and unlike the traditional Cisco TAC there is no need to select from a plethora of categories or scenario types.
 
 cisco meraki support cases resized 600 
Figure 2 – Meraki Support Cases
 
CUWN is no slouch when it comes to maintenance. A correctly deployed installation of Cisco Prime Infrastructure can be useful in device image management. Unfortunately, the upgrade process seems repetitive, as successive releases come rapidly while never quite completely resolving the issues of current features. In addition to the waiting for subsequent releases there also is the issue of insuring compatibility between the software on each individual device.
 
Maintenance Advantage: Cisco Meraki
 

Graphical User Interface

Cisco Meraki: The simplicity of the user interface, combined with the addition of mobile apps which are compatible with tablets and many mobile operating systems makes this decision difficult.  When you include the plethora of features, such as the direct integration with Google maps for CMX data and client location analysis, the Meraki cloud solution is formidable. The UI within Cisco Meraki is also extremely intuitive. Each section of the UI is clearly defined and  specific tasks can be completed contextually without requiring a significant learning curve. cisco meraki menu resized 600 
Figure 3- Cisco Meraki Menu
 
CUWN UI is essentially synonymous with Prime Infrastructure. Prime Infrastructure, ever since its integration with Cisco LMS, has become extremely robust. There was a point when Prime Infrastructure would have been the best option for small to midsized deployments.  Now with the addition of device discovery, an ever changing license structure, and reduced focus on central wireless features, Prime Infrastructure loses its edge in simplicity. There is still a technical gap between the CUWN and the Meraki cloud solution; this is where that fact is most apparent. There is an amazing toolkit that CUWN provides to monitor and maintain the wireless network. There are management features, such as the multiple management dashboards and dashlets, which can customize the individual user experience. This makes Prime Infrastructure a superior product. CUWN provides heat map features that Cisco Meraki does not currently provide. I reached out to a Cisco Meraki developer at this years Cisco Live and he was adamant that these features are already in the process of being integrated into the Meraki cloud solution.  
 
cisco meraki prime dashboard resized 600
Figure 4 – Prime Dashboard
 
Graphical User Interface Advantage: Cisco Unified Wireless Network...for now!
 

Troubleshooting

Cisco Meraki: When it comes to troubleshooting, Meraki lacks the advanced tools needed in order to effectively tune the wireless network. This is mostly due to the limitation in hardware capabilities. The Meraki MR34 does have the addition of a 4th antenna dedicated strictly to spectrum analysis functions and the Meraki dashboard is definitely innovative in applying a real-time FFT graph which monitors spectrum activity and displays channel interference as well as utilization.
 
 cisco meraki fft graph resized 600 
Figure 5- FFT Graph
 
Network administrators can then change the power and channel settings manually or continue to leverage the auto configuration feature. There is not a feature which allows the administrator to tune the auto configuration algorithms, a component that is available in the CUWN. There is however, a ground breaking real-time packet capture feature that can be used for more advanced troubleshooting. Also the Air Marshal feature is definitely a key feature in rogue AP mitigation.
 
cisco meraki packet capture resized 600 
Figure 6- Packet Capture
 
CUWN still has the upper hand in troubleshooting, based upon its ability to dynamically adjust to the constantly changing radio frequency environmental factors. Many of the advanced troubleshooting tasks are configured during the initial installation. Based upon the results of the RF analysis phase algorithms set varying thresholds. This allows CUWN to go far beyond just manipulating power and channel settings. In the CUWN, you can set up RF Profiles which correlate to specific areas in a facility and adjust individual AP power and channel thresholds based upon data collected by a group of access points. There is the practice of implementing event driven radio resource management, which can detect sudden spontaneous fluctuations in the radio frequency environment and instruct the access point to change channels to a cleaner area of the radio frequency spectrum in a moment’s notice. Also, rogue access points and interfering devices can be located on the map within Prime Infrastructure which allows for direct engagement by administrators. The Dynamic Channel Allocation function can be tuned to only utilize channels which have shown to be stable over time and the faulty channels will no longer be included in any assignments.  As mentioned previously, the dashlets in conjunction with alarms within Prime Infrastructure can quickly alert administrators of mounting concerns. These alerts can also be set to varying levels, as to not diminish the impact of receiving an alert. Dynamic Frequency selections allow the CUWN to be FIPS compliant and adjust access points channels and power in the presence of radar. 
 
Essentially, the differentiating factor between Meraki and CUWN is that CUWN can take data about an individual environment; have specific attributes of the wireless network dynamically attuned to mitigate single or recurring issues that may adversely impact wireless clients. A term my superiors deem “Geek Knobs”. It should be mentioned that the Meraki Cloud wireless solution is in fact in the process of integrating many of these same features within its dashboard but ……..

Troubleshooting Advantage: Cisco Unified Wireless Network...for now!

 

Bring it home

In conclusion, it’s a dead heat between the two deployments. As mentioned in the opening, Cloud wireless is on the horizon with many additional features weeks away from being implemented. Cloud wireless in the small to medium sized business realm has already garnered a sizeable share of the overall market. In the coming months as the technology progresses I believe Cisco Meraki Cloud Wireless will take over the world…….
 
Ok, that was dramatic but you get the point.

Topics: Cisco UCS, Security, Wi-Fi

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