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Growing WLAN demand provides partner opportunity

As critical functions continue to be transported to the wireless network, Billy MacInnes looks at what this means for the channel

The WLAN market is in good shape, which makes it an attractive area for partners to consider if they’re not already playing in it. According to recent IDC figures, the consumer and enterprise WLAN market grew by 1.8% in the third quarter of 2016. That might not seem a lot, but the enterprise segment grew by more than 8% to finish at $1.45bn (£1.15bn). IDC attributes the sustained growth in the enterprise WLAN market to refresh cycles and the funding of digital transformation initiatives in many enterprises.

With just over 67% of dependent access point shipments and nearly 81% of dependent access point revenues accounted for by the standard, IDC says the stage is set for near obso­lescence of the 802.11n standard by 2018 in the mainstream enterprise segment.

Commenting on the figures, Nolan Greene, senior research analyst of network infrastructure at IDC, says: “In every facet of business, and across different verticals – from education to hospitality – mission-critical functions are continuing to migrate from the wired network to wireless. This positions the worldwide enterprise WLAN market to continue performing strongly, even as other markets experience softness.”

What to look out for

Jonathan Whitley, sales director for Northern Europe at WatchGuard Technologies, believes major growth in the WLAN market is being driven by several factors. For example, many companies are deploying Wi-Fi for the first time to support free roaming and hotdesking. Better bandwidth means there is no need for hardware connections – and some devices no longer have ethernet sockets. Companies that have WLANs are expanding their estates and upgrading to support the higher speeds offered by ac and Wave 1 and Wave 2 access points. There is also a shift from on-premise controllers to cloud-based systems that reduce costs and make it eas­ier to manage and support multiple sites.

Another major factor is security, driven by greater awareness of the risks posed by insecure WLANs – from rogue password cracking and eavesdropping to rogue hotspots. “It’s possible to mimic a genuine Wi-Fi access point using cheap hardware that costs as little as £150 and fits into a backpack,” Whitley warns.

He argues the speed of Wi-Fi adoption has led to a discon­nect between access and security. Traditional WLAN vendors focused on getting clients to connect with limited attention to protecting users and their data. Security vendors, such as WatchGuard, are driving secure WLAN solutions by extend­ing physical network safeguards to wireless networks and pro­viding better network visibility to overcome a major security blindspot, he adds.

David Galton-Fenzi, chief commercial officer for Nuvias Group and CEO of Zycko, believes future growth will come from enter­prises making strategic investments in upgrading and updat­ing their wireless solutions around standards-based 802.11ac technology, for improved performance. He agrees with Whitley that there will be further developments around security, visi­bility and reporting, to support enterprise, as well as increasing demands on wireless networks as a result of the internet of things (IoT).

Enterprise wireless networks are under pres­sure from the explosion of mobile phones and tablets, but this is bound to intensify with the predicted onslaught of IoT. “It will make WLAN design more complex and difficult to manage and secure,” he warns.

Mike Leibovitz, director at the office of the CTO at Extreme Networks, says: ”With Wi-Fi increasingly being viewed as a human right, we will continue to see growth in investment by companies looking to provide customers and employees with the highest quality of experience.” Like Galton-Fenzi, he expects continuing demand for 802.11ac, driven by IoT and businesses undertaking “major facelifts” to their legacy infrastructure.

The WLAN market can also capitalise on organisa­tions’ concerns over capital expenditure (capex) by delivering experience-driven solutions that will drive return on invest­ment (ROI). Businesses are beginning to appreciate that ven­dors delivering a full end-to-end WLAN solution bundled with analytics and managed services gives them the opportunity to monetise their networks, as well as increase user engagement and quality of experience.

802.11ac and beyond

Peter Hannah, head of UK channel at Zyxel, says while 802.11ac has the biggest share of the market, around a fifth of customers rely on 11n, and, in some cases, 11g. “Therefore, it’s still important to accommodate this segment of the market when building a portfolio,” he says.

Hannah argues the Wave 2 11ac wireless standard isn’t enjoy­ing wide appeal because client technology isn’t moving fast enough to capitalise on its benefits. As a result, Zyxel expects 11ax to supersede Wave 2 11ac in 2018. “Our big technology tip would be to focus on smart antennae, which provides a host of speed and range benefits to customers.”

Shane Buckley, CEO at Xirrus, highlights 802.11ad as an inter­esting emerging technology for 2017, labelling it as “bluetooth on steroids” because it does for video/monitor connections, dock­ing stations and mobile device connections what bluetooth did for audio connections. However, he adds: “The critical issue for standards is top-quality security for networks and devices. It’s important to have standards that will make it easier, and eventu­ally mandatory, to encrypt and authenticate wireless networks. Too much of our business and personal data flows through Wi-Fi to not have them all automatically secured, all the time.”

On the data point, Jennifer Capewall, senior international channel marketing manager at Aerohive Networks, says the ability to offer customers more in terms of data collection and uses for Wi-Fi outside of the norm, especially in the retail indus­try, are helping to develop the WLAN market. “Retailers and enterprises are in need of a WLAN infrastructure with provi­sions in addition to wireless connectivity, and with the ability to be controllerless,” she says. “This is where distributed control functions and data are forwarded to smart access points while maintaining a centralised management system for monitoring and configuration. In short, providing a solution which boosts an enterprise’s efficiencies, fuelling activity like proximity advertis­ing solutions and big data capture and analysis.”

The cloud opportunity

There is a strong consensus that cloud will provide a major oppor­tunity for the WLAN market and for partners. Xirrus‘s Buckley believes Wi-Fi and the cloud offer one of the biggest opportunities for channel partners. “The cloud creates a paradigm shift for mil­lions of users, making pervasive, reliable, secure Wi-Fi mandatory in the enterprise.” Like Whitley, he stresses the importance for secu­rity with so many businesses rely­ing on always on/always-connected access to the cloud, but Wi-Fi net­works also need to have 24/7 mon­itoring and self-healing capabilities.

Capewell agrees that vendors offering cloud-based network­ing and controllerless products that continue to think outside the box to deliver key integrations and solutions will be in good shape, while non-wireless vendors that rely on legacy systems will be left behind.

Hannah believes cloud-enabled hardware products will be an excellent opportunity for channel partners because they will allow resellers to move to a managed service provider (MSP) model more easily while covering a much larger geo­graphical area. Partners will be able to get longevity out of their hardware investment in a service-led approach, reducing the need for constant sales and purchases and heavy reliance on hardware prices.

However, he adds: “Cloud may not be the answer to every­thing, particularly in larger deployments, meaning customers will still be on the lookout for pro­viders that demonstrate flexibility of solutions.” The demand for pri­vate cloud for wireless will increase as companies with more sensitive data look for a cloud solution – this could be cloud control but not in the public domain, or managed WLAN controllers in a datacentre.

Given the spread of cloud and on-premise solutions, channel part­ners would be unwise to adopt a one-size-fits-all approach, he adds. The most successful part­ners will be those that take the time to understand customer requirements, educate them about today’s demands and have the flexibility to work on solutions across the board.

Focus on security

Whitley argues partners should focus on security as a potential area of opportunity in the WLAN market. General growth in the WLAN market presents significant opportunities for the channel in 2017. “But the increasing demand for secure Wi-Fi opens up major opportunities for experienced network security resellers that can now extend perimeter security solutions to embrace the wireless network.“

Resellers need to partner with vendors that can extend their network security portfolio into the WLAN arena. This will allow customers to run all their wireless network traffic through proven network security appliances, providing the same antivirus, intru­sion prevention, web filtering, spam blocking, application control, advanced persistent threat blocking and data loss prevention protection. “There is no longer any excuse for providing an unse­cured WLAN,” he says. “We shouldn’t have to feel we are living dangerously whenever we log on to a Wi-Fi hotspot.”

Echoing Whitley, Galton-Fenzi notes that the focus for many vendors is towards adding security to their offerings, and those organisations that have started in the security arena will be best positioned to deliver to the market quickly.

What to look for in a vendor

In terms of vendors, Galton-Fenzi predicts Cisco will continue to dominate in the Wi-Fi space. It will do this by putting pres­sure on HP/Aruba around pricing and continuing to defend its market share, which it has historically been very good at, by taking out its biggest threats through acquisition, he says.

Galton-Fenzi believes the biggest growth opportunities will come from vendors in the lower end of the market, where they have invested heavily in research and development and product development to provide some unique offerings to the market. “Channel partners need to think carefully about which vendors to work with to ensure they capitalise on the biggest margin opportunities,” he says. There are plenty of players that will offer them good margin opportunities, especially if they are quick to market and can benefit from taking share from other vendors and resellers.

Distributors can help. “Partners have two options,” says Galton-Fenzi. “Meet with the growing list of vendors in this space and carry out the due diligence required to make the right decision; or approach distribution partners, such as Nuvias, that have a wealth of expertise and experience around the WLAN market to point them in the right direction.” Distributors can provide channel partners with access to a wealth of experi­ence, support and skills to assist them when they are adding vendors and solutions to their portfolio, he adds.

Zyxel’s Hannah says traditional vendors have done a great job of seeding products and growing the market, but the acquisition of Ruckus and Aruba, as well as partnerships involving Aerohive and others, have created a significant amount of uncertainty. “With so much consolidation, this year will be key in determin­ing the success of wireless vendor business models,” he says.

Hannah expects vendors developing cloud solutions to be best placed, with those that look beyond wireless to areas such as switching and security – or specialised technology such as smart antenna and beamforming – enjoying an advantage as cloud-based software places more demands on the net­work. “Many customers see wireless as an extension of the wider network and a more complete portfolio would be able to deliver better service the overall needs of the business,” says Hannah. “One vendor also means one team of sales, pre-sales and post-sales to deal with, simplifying the process for partners.”

The partner opportunity

Leibovitz says partners will have the opportunity to offer cus­tomers tailored solutions that have been fully designed to meet their industry needs. “Partners need to ensure they are equipping themselves with the ability to sell solutions and services to capi­talise on the growth in the WLAN market,” he states.

Channel businesses need to partner with vendors that know the mobility requirements of customers across the verticals they are selling in. If they don’t understand the WLAN needs of the user, they won’t be able to propose the full and complementary solution that best meets them.

Capewell predicts the key word when it comes to WLAN and opportunities for channel partners is “more”. There will be more diversification as WLAN products develop and vendors create applications and the facilities to deliver services that provide partners with additional opportunities to sell, along with a wider feature set to choose from.

“With what is now possible with wireless, it will enable chan­nel partners to expand their current portfolios with added sup­port services for their customers,” she adds.

Buckley says partners should be working to ensure their cli­ents’ networks can adapt for three trends: new standards, higher density, and more traffic per device. “Partners should get smarter about Wi-Fi. Educate yourself on what you’ll need to deliver consistently excellent performance as more devices con­nect to your network and generate more traffic,” he says.

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