Software-defined networking (SDN) enabling the WLAN can help deliver a consistently high performance of critical applications and simplify unified management of wired and wireless networks.
To do this effectively, however, vendors need to provide solutions that can offer immediate benefits to the IT department without any extra training or a rip-and-replace strategy.
It also means that these offerings must truly embrace the open architecture approach to SDN that has been enabled by OpenFlow and advocated by communities and industry organisations such as the Open Networking Forum.
The growth in mobile devices, popularity of BYOD and increased use of applications, such as VoIP, videoconferencing and others put added pressure on IT networks to deliver a consistently high-quality experience across unified wired and wireless access networks.
With so much traffic from so many sources going to so many different devices, even understanding the traffic is difficult enough. Consistently ensuring a fast, seamless, reliable performance for the most critical applications is even more challenging.
SDN-enabling the WLAN can help address this.
Major application vendors such as Microsoft provide SDN APIs, giving WLAN vendors the information they need to provide better tools for network monitoring, diagnosis and application-specific quality of service (QoS).
By OpenFlow-enabling their WLAN controllers and integrating similar capabilities, WLAN vendors can help IT enforce QoS for these applications.
Another example of how a WLAN-centric SDN implementation can add value is in enabling security across both wired and wireless assets. The influx of mobile devices has expanded the need for intrusion-protection for enterprise access networks.
Since attacks can come from the wireless domain or the wired LAN, SDN-enabling the WLAN controller creates a more comprehensive firewall and intrusion-protection solution.
SDN-enabling QoS and security through the WLAN controller provides multiple benefits – centralising network visibility and control, simplifying management, reducing costs and saving time.
Implementing this should be easy for IT, with few changes and retraining, requiring only software upgrades to existing WLAN controllers and navigation of a few new user interfaces.
The best of these systems will draw from IT's existing knowledge, keeping costs down and streamlining deployment and ongoing management.
Mobile device proliferation has made the WLAN the primary mode of enterprise network access, although unification of management for wired and wireless networks has not kept pace with users' needs. SDN will enable WLAN vendors to bridge this gap.
Existing unified access management platforms are costly and closed, providing visibility and control of LAN switching as well as WLAN controllers and access points, but typically only when you purchase the entire offering from a single vendor.
Only by enabling full visibility of and control over their networks, from the LAN switch through the WLAN controller to the access points themselves, can WLAN vendors truly deliver on the promise of SDN.
They must provide north- and south-bound APIs that are not vendor-specific to really add value to the IT department and their end users. This gives IT organisations the ability to integrate third-party or even home-grown management applications that meet their specific needs.
SDN can enable application performance, ease of management and simplicity of use for the unified wired and wireless access network.
However, the true extent of this openness will be determined by each vendor's implementation. Will vendors work towards truly open networks where best-in-class solutions win, or will they simply implement SDN from their own proprietary points of view?
The degree to which these new systems are able to remove complexity from access network deployment and management, without requiring additional training and equipment replacement, will ultimately determine their true value.
Ajay Malik is senior vice president of worldwide engineering and quality assurance at Meru Networks
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