Wireless internet is non-negotiable for American businesses. We depend upon their wireless networks. A lot. Even though this article is sort of playfully positioned as Cisco vs Meraki, it’s more about wired vs wireless networks. Or, site-base vs cloud-based, in other words.
In the Cisco-verse, customers have two options when constructing their WLAN. They deploy an on-premise Cisco WLAN or go the cloud-hosted Meraki route. Each has its own benefits and drawbacks. So before making a decision, you should understand how these solutions stack up against each other.
Cloud-based vs premise-based WLAN
Organizations needing to upgrade their legacy wireless LAN can either go with an on-premises controller or one where controllers are located in the cloud. Both offer advantages, and which you choose will depend on several factors, including your current network design and wireless requirements.
When enterprise WLANs originally came out, each wireless access point was configured and managed independently from other APs on the same network. At the time, this wasn’t a problem. However, as the demand for Wi-Fi grew, so did the infrastructure required to supply it. Suddenly, network administrators had to manage hundreds, even thousands, of APs. They were having to blanket entire buildings and campuses with a wireless signal.
Enter wireless controllers
To solve these technical, some smart people created wireless LAN controllers. These would force management control-plane data back to a single location. The controller’s job is to be a single choke point for AP configuration, communication and policy enforcement. The APs themselves lose their individual intelligence, and the controller becomes the brain for the entire WLAN. One advantage of this arrangement is the controller oversees all the APs throughout the network. As a result, has a complete view of the WLAN. IT staff can use the controller to make intelligent radio adjustments as needed.
A second benefit is both control-plane and data-plane traffic are tunneled back to the wireless controller before it’s placed onto the local data LAN. This is a good thing in the sense that wireless policy enforcement for specific service set identifiers occurs at only one location. This makes policy management super easy. It also offers better security, as traffic from an AP is coming through an encrypted tunnel. But the overall design can create bottlenecks and single points of failure if not planned properly.
Cloud-managed wireless LAN
In cloud-managed WLANs, APs connect to a virtual controller. It’s typically located in a public cloud on the internet. Control-plane information, AP management, etc. are shared between the cloud controller and the local APs. It happens across an internet connection. The primary architectural difference between an on-premises controller and a cloud-based controller is how the data-plane traffic flows.
In an on-premises design, both control- and data-plane communication tunnel back to the controller. By contrast, in a cloud-controller design, data-plane information offloads as soon as it hits the LAN. This means any policy enforcement happens on the AP itself, which makes cloud APs semi-intelligent.
Now, both on-premises and cloud-managed WLANs are reliable and enterprise-ready. Determining which will serve you and your Wi-Fi strategy the best depends on a number of factors. Let’s look at the benefits and best use cases of both cloud-managed and on-premises WLANs.
Benefits of on-premise controllers
You may already have an on-premise setup. If so, simply upgrading to a next-generation on-premises controller may be best. One that tunnels both control- and data-plane information back to the local controller is the easiest option. Because to switch to cloud-based would take a considerable amount of time to accomplish, depending on the size of your network.
And as a practical matter, cloud-managed wireless LANs rely heavily on the internet in order to function properly. This can be an obstacle if your internet connectivity is spotty.
Also, on-premises controllers typically offer far more flexibility when it comes to the design and deployment of the WLAN. This includes more advanced support for legacy Wi-Fi devices and applications. It also means more granular control over specific wireless settings. For enterprises that use thousands of APs, multiple on-premises controllers can work together to provide robust WLAN access and failover for clients. In these complex scenarios, on-premises controllers offer far greater benefits than cloud controllers.
Benefits of cloud-managed controllers
If your organization has hundreds of branch sites, a cloud-based WLAN might be ideal. With a cloud approach, you have a single point of management. And it doesn’t matter where IT staff is physically located. This eliminates the need to deploy controllers at each site. Plus, network administrators don’t need to worry about remote access into each site. Why? Because cloud control! Another cool thing is that many wireless vendors (like Meraki) offer zero-touch provisioning. This means you can preconfigure your wireless hardware before it even ships. The zero-touch device will set itself up automatically as soon as you plug it in.
On-premise controllers are limited to your organization’s existing hardware. Smaller on-premises controllers can manage up to 25 APs. Big, expensive ones can handle thousands. Either way, the amount of hardware that controllers can handle has limits. New hardware must be purchased for expanding infrastructures. On the other hand, cloud WLAN theoretically has no limits. In the cloud, your WLAN can contain anywhere from a handful to thousands of APs. All without the built-in restrictions of hardware limitations. And older controllers must be manually upgraded. That can take a lot of time and manpower. With a cloud controller, updates happen automatically via the cloud.
Cisco vs Meraki
Meraki (cloud-based) requires customers to purchase an annual license. Otherwise the hardware won’t work. But the upfront deployment costs are noticeably lower than an on-premise Cisco solution. On the other hand, the Cisco on-prem solution requires the customer to purchase and deploy more hardware to support and manage the WLAN. So the upfront cost is going to be greater. But you avoid the ongoing annual costs of renewing licenses. Without the assistance of the cloud-hosted Meraki platform, the customer has to maintain the solution. That requires skilled personnel who must spend time supporting the WLAN.
Both Meraki and Cisco on-premise are viable routes for many deployments. However, the Cisco on-prem is the more flexible option of the two. The hardware is yours. All the equipment is yours, and your team supports it. That provides greater control of your WLAN than using a cloud-hosted platform provided by Meraki.
If your business requires different antenna types for coverage, if you have the engineering talent in house to support it, the added flexibility of an on-premise solution might appeal to you.
On the other hand, you can manage Meraki from absolutely anywhere if the controller is in the cloud. And from any device. Meraki’s cloud interface is definitely more intuitive and easier to configure. And the entire network can be managed under a single pane of glass. It unifies WAN, LAN, WLAN, and mobile device management on one page. The Cisco on-premise solution requires multiple points of management and additional layers of software to get the same level of visibility.
With Meraki cloud, you can forget about upgrades or having to patch anything. The new Meraki features and code levels are delivered as automatic updates. That means you are always up to date for new device types. It must be said, Cisco provides a larger selection of access points. This allows you to select the perfect device for your particular deployment, and any new tools for the management dashboard.
As you can see, either on-premise or cloud-based WLAN will have their uses. If you are weighing your WLAN options and would like advice based on your unique situation, please email us or call Corporate Armor at 877-449-0458. Thanks for reading!