Review: Meraki Enterprise Cloud Controller for APs

By Lisa Phifer - Wi-Fi

January 11, 2012

Long before “cloud” was a buzzword, Meraki applied this winning architecture to WLANs.

For example, Cloud Controller provides another “Live Tool” with which to Ping an individual Client. Other near-real-time data that can be displayed for Clients include channel, signal strength (last and range), ping loss and latency, and triangulated location, plotted on a floor plan (below).

Meraki control panel

In our experience, the accuracy of Cloud Controller’s estimated locations varied from decent for recently-stationary Clients to poor for highly-mobile Clients. (We note this intriguing feature is still labeled beta.) Meraki also collaborates with partners such as Ekahau to enable non-Wi-Fi asset tag tracking. In addition, Meraki offers a free Java WiFi Mapper tool which can be run on any Wi-Fi client with a browser, letting someone walk an office while measuring signal strength to generate heat maps. While this is not a WLAN planner, it can be handy to validate coverage from a particular client’s perspective.

Finally, Cloud Controller offers Rogue AP detection, using opportunistic, daily or on-demand channel scans to spot non-Meraki APs and their SSIDs, channels, and MAC addresses (including Ethernet where connected to the same LAN). This cannot be used to plot a rogue’s location or observe client connections, but we used it to supplement Cloud Controller’s auto-channel assignment. Specifically, the Radio Settings panel includes a Channel Planning Report, which details current assignments (spread to minimize interference), along with a count of Rogue APs during the past 24 hours. This can be helpful to understand a rogue’s impact on a network.

The bottom line

Enterprise Cloud Controller adjusts channels and transmit power to avoid interference, but does not appear to be otherwise intimately involved in real-time AP control. According to Meraki, not only does the Controller stay out of the data path, but most control functions survive loss of Controller connectivity, including firewall and traffic shaping, 802.1X authentication, AP roaming, and teleworker VPN tunneling (not tested). Of course, management functions such as configuration, diagnostics, and stat collection are unavailable when the Controller is unreachable.

Meraki SLAs promise 99.9% uptime for the hosted service itself. Throughout our review, Meraki technical support was exceptionally responsive; often fixing a reported bug within days and installing new firmware without action from us. This transparency will appeal to many customers, but some enterprises require tighter change control and auditing. To that end, Meraki recently added configuration change audit logs and alerts, along with read-only accounts, stronger password policies, and SMS one time passcode authentication for admins. All of these tweaks are intended to woo IT trust, essential for any hosted management service.

During the course of our test drive, Meraki’s Enterprise Cloud Controller was not always perfect, and it did not always let us tune RF parameters. But our densely-deployed APs delivered sound connectivity, managed from a responsive dashboard that made reconfiguration easy and usage readily visible. We think this kind of low-cost fuss-free cloud-managed approach will appeal to many businesses. However, policy flexibility and scalability, along with the usual IT outsourcing concerns, could be barriers for some larger enterprises.

Lisa Phifer owns Core Competence, a consulting firm focused on business use of emerging network and security technologies. An avid fan of wireless mobility and regular contributor to Wi-Fi Planet, Lisa has reviewed, deployed, and tested 802.11 enterprise, SMB and consumer electronic devices, software and services for over a decade.

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