Necessity is the mother of innovation. Cloud managed WiFi was born out of the need to provide a management plane for controllerless WiFi, and provided additional benefits of reducing network TCO via economies of scale, multi-tenancy, and simplicity of administration.
Having come thus far, the question now is: What lies ahead for cloud managed WiFi? What are today’s needs that will drive the next wave of innovation?
For the answer, we can look at emerging verticals for WiFi, and in particular, those with larger scale requirements and with different network management needs than traditional enterprise. One vertical that fits the bill is that of large-scale managed services providers (MSPs), who provide WiFi as a managed service to business customers of all sizes. These MSPs can be MSOs like cable and broadband providers who view WiFi as a value-add to their Internet pipes. They can be telco operators with business services groups. IDC projects MSPs to represent almost a third of overall cloud managed WiFi market of 2.5B in 2018.
Working with this group over the past year and a half, I saw how quickly they appreciate that cloud managed WiFi is a great fit for them. However, their needs are different from traditional enterprises, and so they provide ample impetus for innovation. Below are some ways I see MSPs shaping cloud managed WiFi in the near future.
Organization of the cloud management plane
Traditionally, compute resources for different services in the cloud WiFi management plane are vertically organized. In other words, a given compute instance runs many or all the services required for WiFi management (configuration, GUI, network statistics, security, reporting, logging, layered services) for the set of tenants hosted on it.
A large MSP can change this model to horizontal. In other words, there will be different sets of compute clusters assigned to different sets of WiFi management and services functions. So there could be clusters for configuration, GUI, reporting, network monitoring, security, analytics, layered services, and so on. These clusters can also scale dynamically: that is, a GUI cluster can expand and contract based on how many GUI sessions are in progress, a reporting cluster can expand and contract based on how many reports are pending generation, and so on. The important point is that the horizontal organization provides economies only at a very large scale, and hence MSPs are ideal for it.
Enabling the utilities model
Traditionally, enterprise WiFi vendors organized their feature set into just a few licensing SKUs, but large MSPs require dynamic control over enabling and disabling customer features and services. This enables MSPs to change service packages and generate incremental revenues on top of basic packages by selling layered services. MSPs need to be able to track the usage of features and services by the customer and bill accordingly. This business model of MSPs can be supported only if the cloud WiFi management plane can provide an adequate entitlement framework for feature/service authorization and tracking.
Data center agnostic cloud software
Large MSPs typically make strategic investments in their own data center infrastructure, and naturally, they require the WiFi management cloud to run in their data centers. However, running a WiFi vendor’s management plane in the MSP data center is not just about installing access point management servers. The WiFi management cloud has additional supporting components such as customer provisioning, device redirectors, authentication and entitlement services, load balancers, health monitoring, capacity optimization services, backup and disaster recovery mechanisms, and so on. The entire infrastructure should be able to be migrated to MSP data centers and be operable by MSP personnel with minimal training. This requirement will drive the design of WiFi management software so that it can be packaged for migration, installation, and operation in the MSP data center. In essence, the management plane becomes a software product.
Role-based management consoles
Traditionally, cloud WiFi management consoles were designed for use by the enterprise network or IT administrators. However, in the large MSP space, there are many types of users who access the management console, including:
- SMB venue owners (low-skilled, mostly requiring mobile app-based consoles)
- Truck roll technicians (trained, requiring easy access to settings dictated by the installation process)
- Data center administrators (skilled, able to dive deeper into network settings)
- Large enterprise venue owners (trained in-house IT people)
- Sales agents (non-technical, requiring access to review or alter the network features based on subscription packages)
These requirements are a catalyst for the creation of role-based consoles that are presented based on login credentials of the user.
Federated customer accounts
Large MSPs typically layer WiFi on top of their existing primary service offering. For example, a cable operator may layer WiFi on top of its Internet pipe offering, or a telco operator may layer WiFi on top of its cell plans. To the extent that the MSP wants to give end users control over what properties of WiFi they can change using the cloud management plane, the MSP needs the management plane to be accessible using customer account credentials for the primary service. MSPs also require the WiFi service parameters to be integrated into their primary customer backend databases, so they can be used for shipping, billing, and service authorizations.
In the large MSP space, the WiFi management plane becomes a much larger entity, complete with many harnesses required for large-scale commercial service offerings. This amplifies what I always professed: cloud WiFi is not about the location of the management plane (onsite or data center), but about the architecture of the management plane. Large MSP offerings of cloud-managed WiFi are coming. In fact, this ship has already set sail.