The Evolution of Enterprise Wi-Fi Architectures

The Wi-Fi industry has seen an evolution of radio technologies (802.11b through 802.11ac and soon 802.11ax) which have improved performance and user experience. However in addition to this, there has been a corresponding evolution in the architecutres of Wi-Fi deployments, particularly with Enterprise Wi-Fi.

The following diagram shows how, over the years, Wi-Fi architecture has evolved to reach the Cloud Managed Smart Edge model that Cambium's cnPilot and cnMaestro support:

Enterprise Wi-Fi Evolution

Thin AP tunnel to Controller : The first real model for easy management of multiple APs was the so called thin-ap architecture. APs would simply tunnel all packets back to a controller and all the smarts sat in that hardware controllers. Based on the vendor APs either did some managment frame handling, or none at all. While this made managing the APs easy, it also made hte controller a single point of failure and increasingly a bottleneck as radio speeds moved from 802.11b (11Mbps) to 802.11a/g (54Mbps) to 802.11n (300-450Mbps).

Local Bridge with Controller : The next step in evolution here was to let the controller do only management, but bridge all packets out of the AP directly to the LAN. While this removed the traffic bottleneck controller still remained a hardware appliance a user had to purchase, manage and maintain.

Controller-less Smart Edge : As APs were getting enough CPU and memory horse power to deal with increased radio speeds, some vendors moved to a Smart-Edge model, without a controller. APs had become smart enough to either collectively make controller decisions, or elect an AP which does this for the network. Cost of deployment went down, ease of deployment went up. However this solution addressed only small to medium sized networks, not large distributed networks.

Cloud Managed APs: The next logical step to going controller-less was to have a controller, but let the vendor host it in the cloud. This gave the end user the best of both worlds: no need to manage controller hardware, but still receive all the management and control benefits of a centralized manager of the network of APs.

Cloud Managed Smart Edge: The early Cloud managed APs suffer from two problems: a total dependence on cloud for all functionality, need for a strong bandwidth to the cloud since there is a lot of back and forth on every decision the AP has to make. The latest generation cloud managed APs such as Cambiums cnPilot APs and cnMaestro controller solve these issues by adding in a Smart Edge to cloud management. Not only are the APs centrally managed, they are also smart enough to make a number of decisions on their own, especially around RF-management. This also adds resiliency where the basic AP functionality is not impacted even by an outage to the cloud connection.

The Cloud Managed Smart Edge architecture has taken the learnings from years of Wi-Fi installations in enterprise and service provider networks and married two technologies: Cloud Management and Smart Edge processing, to provide a Wi-Fi architecture that is feature-rich, efficient and resilient.