Recently Motorola announced a significant change to its wireless LAN architecture with its WiNG 5 announcement. With WiNG 5, Motorola is running identical firmware across its wireless LAN controllers and access points. Its access points have enough memory and processing power to operate independently from a controller, allowing enterprises to deploy controllerless WLAN infrastructure.
This new architecture allows an access point to perform some of the high-level security, policy and RF management roles that have traditionally been centralized in a controller.
At first glance it appeared that Motorola was going the way of start-up Aerohive, which has had a controllerless approach to WLAN from its inception. However, Motorola isn’t dumping the controller appliance altogether. It still has a role, but Motorola admits that the role is evolving. In fact, from what Motorola says, it sounds like everything about the WLAN controller is evolving.
Manju Mahishi, Motorola’s director of product management, told me that WiNG 5 is meant to give enterprises flexibility in deployment and to avoid bottlenecks associated with backhauling high throughput 802.11n data through centralized controllers. But he said that controllers will not be disappearing from Motorola’s WLAN architecture.
“We believe very strongly that in the vast majority of cases, depending on the number of access points in a local site, you can get away without having controllers. Up to 24 access points can be deployed without any controller,” Mahishi said. “But there are scenarios where we still see certain enterprises customers will still want to pull data centrally. They want to do all data processing through a controller, whether on specific VLANs or on guest access. Even though we see the benefits of distributed intelligence and having the access points doing all the work, there are still scenarios where [enterprises] will want to pull certain data if not all data through controllers, whether they are doing packet inspection or applying some security policies.”
He said there are some scenarios where the access points will simply not have the processing power to match Motorola’s high-end controllers. For instance, a highly subnetted network will require a controller. If a company wants to extend certain VLAN from a central campus out to branch offices, they will also use controllers to pull data back through a WAN.
Beyond the role of the controller, Mahishi said the format of the controller is also set for an evolution. He said Motorola’s OEM partnerships with Brocade and Extreme Networks are pushing the concept of a controller in a new direction. He said the ability to virtualize a controller and run it on a third party switching platform from one of these OEM partners could offer new ways of scaling a wireless LAN while simultaneously integrating it into the wired infrastructure.
“We can easily virtualize [controller] functionality,” Mahishi said. “When we were demonstrating WiNG 5, we were running it on a laptop. Clearly the intent is to be able to take this capability and run it on a cloud-based controller or any server-based appliance that can scale. The WiNG 5 architecture helps us get there.”
Networking pros will doubtless follow Motorola’s evolution of the controller-access point architecture very closely. Controllers from most WLAN vendors are extremely expensive and vendors like Aerohive and Meraki have made hay with customers by offering WLAN infrastructure that is free of a costly physical appliance. Aerohive’s access points collaborate as a virtual controller while Meraki offers cloud-based, subscription controller functionality, which transfers the controller function from a big-ticket capital expense to a low-cost, but ongoing, operational expense.