Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Shift to Smart APs is on the Horizon

In my last two posts, I detailed Cisco's Hybrid REAP mode of operation.

H-REAP is a feature attempting to fill a critical gap in the controller based wireless architecture. Due to the high expense of deploying controllers at all locations, many organizations are unwilling to make the shift to controller architectures. H-REAP attempts to reduce this reliance on distributed controllers by pushing more functionality back into the access points. Unfortunately, this feature as it stands today is too complex and too limited to be truly scalable and provide the availability many organizations now require for wireless network operation and SLAs.

The industry moved from “Fat APs” which provided minimal or no coordinated services among each other, to controller-based models with “Thin APs” that pushed both management and data plan operations to the controller with a Split-MAC architecture. The downfall of the controller-based model is the reliance on increasingly larger and larger hardware controllers, with specific AP licensing and support limits. This only serves to drive costs astronomically high for large enterprises, especially organizations with a large quantity of distributed remote offices, such as in the Retail industry.

The move to limit the reliance on the controller for network operation is required by these customers, and the wireless industry is being forced to migrate back towards what I call a “Smart AP” model. This will be a hybrid approach where controllers perform centralized management, configuration deployment, monitoring, statistics collection, reporting and alerting on the environment. The Smart APs will perform all 802.11 network functions (no more Split-MAC), client authentications, and all functionality required for the network to operate. Controllers will be placed in centralized data centers or NOCs, the network will function with high availability even if the controller is not reachable, and the required hardware investment in controllers will be dramatically reduced.

Only then will truly viable remote office solutions be practical when deploying controller-based architectures. If this doesn’t happen soon, there will be tremendous opportunity for smaller market vendors with traditionally strong vertical industry presence to gain market share. Aerohive offers a completely controller-less architecture, as Devin Akin eloquently rants. He’s absolutely right, the time has come for either controller-less networks or at-least “less-controllers”!

Along that same line, Motorola recently gave an excellent preview for my organization on their Adaptive AP roadmap. I have to give them credit, I liked what I saw and will be anxiously awaiting beta code for evaluation in our lab.



  1. Excellent blog post. I'd like to add that Ruckus controllers are not in the data path and while we still use controllers for larger deployments, the throughput of the Wi-Fi system will not be bottle necked at a controller.


  2. Cool post Andrew. :) Thanks for the mention.

    Hey GT, good to see you here my friend.