Aerohive's "Cooperative Control" Takes on the Big Guys

By Eric Griffith

May 08, 2007

This startup spreads the smarts around a “hive” of APs to provide all the capability of WLAN switches/controllers with less expense.

Aerohive Networks is coming out of stealth mode today with a product line that it says does away with the need for centralized wireless LAN (WLAN) controllers. 

In the early days of enterprise WLANs, there were smart or “thick” access points that did their job and sometimes talked to management applications -- and sometimes not. The last few years have seen the dawn of the “controller” (or as they were known at first, the “wireless switch”), hardware with centralized management and brains to run “thin” APs on the edge of the network.

So now Aerohive wants to take us back to the past? Not exactly.

“A lot of people are under the assumption that you need a controller -- we’re changing that assumption,” says Aerohive CEO and president David Flynn. Aerohive's architecture instead distributes the control plane across APs -- the company calls it a “cooperative control AP” or CC-AP -- which then form self-organized groups called “hives.” The information running the network is never in one concentrated, central point like a controller. If one CC-AP goes down, the rest take up the slack. Each CC-AP is aware of the status of every other CC-AP on the network, unlike the earliest WLANs where each AP was autonomous.

The official name of their CC-AP is HiveAP 20. Priced at $995, it's dual-radio, dual-band, ruggedized and supports Power over Ethernet (PoE) -- everything you’d expect in an enterprise AP. At least one unit has to have a wired connection back to a wired router to get support for things like DHCP or 802.1X authentication -- the rest can use a mesh topology to communicate. Flynn expects there to still be a majority of CC-APs connected to the network via Ethernet -- they’ll simply remain aware of each other.

“The magic is in the software,” says Flynn. “Bring in a second HiveAP... they probe the air for RF, use the Ethernet, and find each other to organize into a hive.” Information is shared throughout the hive for features like stateful roaming of clients and best path forwarding to make sure packets get where they’re going on the shortest route.

There is a $4,995 rack-mountable HiveManager Network Management System Appliance companion console for handling configuration and AP updates -- but unlike a controller, it doesn’t hold all the network smarts. “[The appliance is] not essential to the operation,” says Flynn. “When a controller goes down, the network goes down.”

The price of a HiveAP is a bit higher than most enterprise APs. Flynn says the cost savings for businesses comes in the lack of a need for a multi-thousand-dollar controller.

Paul DeBeasi, senior analyst at Burton Group, says the cost of controllers is a significant area of “pain” for enterprises. “For a large network, the cost could be millions of dollars, so AeroHive addresses a significant problem,” he says.

Aerohive certainly thinks so, characterizing installation of its equipment as opposed to some from Cisco in an enterprise headquarters as significantly cheaper ($644,000 for Cisco APs and controllers vs. $398,000 for Aerohive, in its example). The savings go up even more if you factor in the cost outside of headquarters. One potential Aerohive customer is allegedly looking at saving millions by eschewing controllers in its 800 branch locations for HiveAPs. “The economics make it so compelling,” Flynn says.

DeBeasi says the capital cost benefit is only one element. He admits it won’t be easy taking on incumbents like Cisco, noting that “Aerohive still has lots to prove.” IT people have faith now in the controller method and the management focal point it provides. It remains to be seen how well the Aerohive network management will perform. “After all, before we had controllers (pre-2003), we had network management applications that communicated directly with access points, like what Aerohive is doing -- how well will this work?” he asks.

Other questions remain: will it work with VoIP? Aerohive says yes. What about 802.11n support? Flynn says the company will have HiveAPs with 11n when the standard is ready, and that supporting it “highlights the challenges of the controller” -- and he may not be wrong. Already, competitors like Meru Networks are announcing their 11n plans, including boosting capacity on the wired side to handle the traffic.  

“We’re seeing lots of large upgrades now,” says Flynn, “especially from the old [Cisco] Aironet base. They have security issues -- they’re WEP only. Cisco is trying to move people to new switches. We’re a better upgrade for Cisco than Cisco is... users don’t have to re-architect their network. We’re a fraction of the cost.”

The Aerohive products are available now.



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