Do I need a local controller or a cloud based solution for my WLAN?

July 19, 2017
Brian Hubert

The short answer is “it depends.”

There are all sorts of variables to consider. Current requirements are very important but if you are growing and changing, you’ll have to break out your crystal ball to understand your future needs..

For the sake of discussion let’s assume that you currently have an on-premises WLAN with multiple access points (APs). Let’s also make the assumption that you’ve advanced from randomly adding APs, computers, and other hardware to actually developing a plan.

Originally, each of your wireless APs were independently configured. This worked fine when you had specific wireless hotspots such as conference rooms, public areas, and other delineated locales. However, in just a few short years, demand for wireless access started to grow exponentially, as did the need for subsequent infrastructure and support. APs couldn’t communicate with one another, which led to a whole host of technical issues, such as co-channel interference, power modifications, and roaming.

These issues have been solved by three different offerings. One is an on premise, controller based design. The other is a cloud based controller, and the third is a ‘virtual controller’ that usually lives on one of the APs deployed at the location. Let’s talk a little about the original solution, the on premise controller.

Initially, many vendors offered  on premise WLAN controllers. They helped to tame the configuration nightmare and forced everything to flow through a single location. The controller simplifies the job of AP configuration, communication, and policy enforcement. Previously, your APs all had their own “intelligence”, but now they become more like the Borg, with a collective intelligence “housed” in the controller. There are significant advantages to this setup, specifically on premise control and an infinite number of configuration options. Additionally, as the existing LAN changes over, the controller solution usually results in greater flexibility in the design and deployment of the WLAN.

Today most vendors offer either a Cloud-based controller or a virtual controller that lives on one of the APs but can be managed in the cloud, or both.

For many organizations, on premise systems work just fine, and may work just fine five years down the road, even with growth and increased demands on the system. The functionality and flexibility of on premise solutions do require that you invest in hardware, software, personnel training, and other support.

Often, the Cloud-based systems will offer other network devices such as Cloud-managed switches, routers, and firewalls. Their capabilities can also allow you to deploy multi-layered defenses, controlled access, cyber security expertise, and continual auditing and monitoring. On premise solutions have offered these for years but at the cost of equipment, maintenance, etc. Your needs will dictate the proper solution options. Only then can a true cost comparison be carried out.

If you are in an area where connectivity may not be as reliable as you would like (or need), using a Cloud system could be a problem. Poor connectivity could also compromise speed. Additionally, access to your data could be impacted by local bandwidth restrictions (the “last mile” syndrome).

If you are in health care or other regulated industries, the specific regulations on data security may also be determinative.

To summarize: on premises systems can be expensive, and will continue to be as you upgrade. However, you maintain a measure of control. Cloud based controllers allow virtually unlimited growth without the hardware upgrade costs, but you are often foregoing design options and ceding control to your cloud based vendor. In any case it will take serious analysis to understand the real TCO of each solution in your specific situation.

So, “Which system is right for you?” It depends. But our advice is “plan twice, build once.” Upfront expert analysis, planning, and design is the only way to identify the best solution for you.


Brian Hubert

Chief Information Officer

Apex Technology Group

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