Which Cisco WiFi Architecture is right for you – Wireless LAN Controllers, Mobility Express or Meraki Cloud?

I get asked this a lot… What’s the best fit for my customer – Meraki Cloud, Wireless LAN Controllers or Mobility Express?

As ever, the answer can be found be understanding the requirements the network has to satisfy and the scale it which it will operate.  Here’s a quick overview of the basic strengths and drawbacks of each;

Wireless LAN Controllers

Wireless LAN Controllers (WLCs) provide a single point of configuration and control across your Wireless LAN estate.  Whether you want to roll out a new SSID to one Access Point or 6000, you just make the change in your WLC and you’re done – everything updates quickly and consistently.  The current generation of WLCs from Cisco – the 3504, 5520 & 8540 platforms – undoubtedly offer the most feature rich experience.  If there’s a feature you need for your networking challenge, you will find it one of these platforms.  They all provide flexible, trust-based Access Point licensing and support a range of User and Access Point quantities;

3504 – Up to 150 Access Points & 3,000 Users
5520 – Up to 1,500 Access Points & 20,000 Users
8540 – Up to 6,000 Access Points & 64,000 Users

The drawback of using a physical WLC is that if your WiFi network is critical, you probably want two of them.  Each needs SFPs, Power Supplies and for the largest model, up to 4x 10Gbps interfaces.  These demands are occasionally hard for some customers to accommodate.  Also, as you might expect, Wireless LAN Controllers and their AP licenses aren’t free, so there’s a financial impact associated with buying them, and maintaining them in-life.

See here for the Cisco Wireless LAN Controller Overview

Mobility Express

A Mobility Express solution provides WLC-esque functionality by embedding ‘lightweight’ Wireless LAN Controller functionality in to an Access Point.  As you might expect, a small, relatively cheap Access Point doesn’t have the same power as a fully fledged Wireless LAN Controller so you do lose some functionality by comparison, most notably that Mobility Express solutions work in FlexConnect mode.  FlexConnect means that while there is a Mobility Express Controller Access Point keeping your configs consistent and managing the RF estate, the Users’ traffic is bridged directly to the LAN from whatever Access Point they are associated to; it does not tunnel the traffic back to the Mobility Express Controller.  There are a number of other limitations as well, but Cisco explain these thoroughly here.

Another important consideration about Mobility Express is the Access Point you’re going to deploy with it.  Different Access Point models can support different roles; some (newer) Access Points can be either a Mobility Express Controller, or a normal ‘subscriber’ Access Point.  Other (older, or lower spec) Access Points can only be a subscriber Access Point.  A list of which Access Points can fulfil the Controller and/or Subscriber roles can be found here.  Furthermore, not all Mobility Express Controller Access Points have the same capabilities – some can support greater numbers of Access Points and Clients than others.  A list of which Mobility Express Controller Access Points and their respective scalability limits can be found here.

So far I’ve mentioned lots of compromises, but the truth is that for many customers, especially those with small to mid-sized sites, the compromises aren’t an issue.  The obvious benefit of chosing a Mobility Express based solution is that you avoid the cost of the Wireless LAN Controller entirely, which in some cases can represent a large saving.  There is a secondary benefit as well; if you’re a border-line customer and can’t work out if you are best off with Mobility Express or a WLC, you can start with a Mobility Express solution on Day 1, but if you outgrow it you can still implement a Wireless LAN Controller at a later date and your Mobility Express Access Points can be converted to use a Wireless LAN Controller rather simply and easily.  My only real issue with Mobility Express is that, if you’re a customer with lots of small to mid-sized sites, then you will have lots of Mobility Express Controllers to manage, at which point you really need to be including Prime Infrastructure too.

Meraki cloud managed

The Meraki dashboard is bloody great!  If you want a GUI that is quick to learn and really easy to use, the Meraki dashboard is it.  Winner!  All. Day. Long.  However, let’s look at the offering in a little more depth.  Unless you start to incorporate an MX appliance in to your WiFi (more on this later), the Meraki solution works a lot like FlexConnect.  The Meraki dashboard manages everything and User traffic is bridged to the network directly from whatever Access Point the User is connected to.  Meraki has been accused in the past of not giving people enough bells and whistles to play with, particularly when it comes to RF management, but recent improvements to the dashboard have changed this and the product’s features are maturing very nicely, especially now we have support for the Cisco Identity Services Engine and Prime Infrastructure as well.

Unlike the Mobility Express architecture, the Meraki Dashboard natively supports multiple sites through a feature called ‘Networks’ (anybody else would have called it ‘sites’, but hey ho…).  The Networks feature gives you the ability to manage all of your sites through a single dashboard, neatly and competantly filling the gap that larger Mobility Express customers need Prime Infrastructure for.

So what’s not to like?  Firstly, it’s never as cheap as people think – a Meraki cloud solution will cost you, as near as makes no difference, about the same as a Wireless LAN Controller solution.  Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the lack of technical detail.  Look at the other two architectures and there is very specific information about scalability limits, performance characteristics, what features are supported on what device and so on.  Try to find that level of detail with Meraki – it’s just not there – and that makes me, somebody who designs networks for a living, nervous.  Sure, they tell you that Access Points support Layer 3 roaming, but to what extent?  How many Access Points can be in a single roaming domain?  Do the limits vary with older/cheaper Access Points compared with newer/more capable ones?  How many Users can be in the roaming domain?  The same ambiguity can be found when you incorporate an MX in to the solution as well.  You can use an MX as an anchor point where all Wireless User traffic gets tunnelled back to, but nowhere can I find any limits published on how many Access Points tunnels an MX can terminate.

So in summary, whether you’ve got one small to medium sized or 500, Meraki is probably going to be a good fit.  If however, you’ve got one large campus (a big Corporate HQ, a University, a Hospital, etc), I’d stay away from Meraki and use a Wireless LAN Controller instead.

If you want to learn more about Meraki, click here for a free webinar.  Attend the whole session and you’ll receive a free Meraki Access Point (Meraki terms apply, see link for details)

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