Unified network management: Wired and wireless together for good?

With an integrated network management vision, two organizations improved security and reliability, and have made steps towards a fully integrated network. But will we get there?

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Coventry University and alcoholic drink manufacturer, C&C Group are  two very different organizations with one similar networking problem - both have separate but equally necessary wireless and wired LANs. Each entity has separate management tools for these networks, but both see the potential in integrated wired and wireless network management, if not going even further into a unified network architecture.

While a lot of vendors talk integration, at this point few total solutions actually exist. Instead, users must take baby steps toward integrated network management which likely won't totally occur until they face network refresh.

Coventry's expanding wired and wireless network management

Just three years ago, Coventry University, a 33-acre campus with 18,000 students and staff, had a Wireless Local Area Network (WLAN) that consisted of 53 hotspots. Back then, students and staff weren’t armed to the teeth with wireless devices, so this network of convenience provided basic Wi-Fi Internet access.

What may have been a convenience for wireless LAN users was a management headache for the school’s IT department. Each access point (AP) required manual configuration and control. Clearly, the school had no vision for wireless. But three years ago, the university’s pro-vice-chancellor changed that, announcing a vision for ubiquitous wireless across the Coventry campus.

Today, the campus has 703 APs serving 1,500 concurrent users, or about 5,000 users a day. The network provides access to internal campus services in addition to basic Internet depending on user role. Another 330 APs will go live when two new buildings, a student union and an engineering and computing teaching facility, are completed in 2011 and 2012, respectively. 

Working with Cisco to deploy the vendor’s Unified Wireless Network Architecture, the University today provides more robust wires LAN access to more students and staff for a quarter of the cost of installing a wired network. It's also managing all 703 APs from one server. “It’s simple and a huge improvement from when we were managing 53 WAPs manually,” said Paul Brennan, head of network services at Coventry University.

Ubiquitous wireless LAN coverage at Coventry exemplifies what is perhaps the biggest trend in enterprise networking in years -- giving users secure access to the network and applications regardless of device, media or location. That's especially important considering that the latest crop of tablets, most notably Apple’s iPad, don’t offer a wired Ethernet connection. Even so, the iPad is making huge strides in the enterprise. According to Apple’s quarterly earnings report in January, over 80% of Fortune 100 companies are deploying or piloting the iPad.

Still, Coventry's extensive wireless architecture, which includes a range of technology -- from APs and centralized controllers to an automated network configuration application and Network Access Control -- doesn't mean the university will move to total wired replacement. “Wireless isn’t a panacea for wired. We want to see a mix of both,” said Brennan. 

In fact, what's happening at Coventry is what is occurring industry wide: a transition to unification that is about deploying and managing a network infrastructure where wired and wireless are recognized as equally mission -critical, complementing each other.

“Wired Ethernet will continue to play a significant role in network cores and data centers with many enterprise networks going wireless at the edge, replacing virtually every Ethernet drop with wireless for network access,” said Lisa Phifer, president of Core Competence Inc. “In between the edge and core, we’ll see a mix of both, depending on logistics and load.”

As C&C expanded, so did its need for a unified network architecture

At Ireland and UK-based C&C, it was an executive edict that energized an enterprise wireless LAN deployment across the company’s offices, brewery and warehouse.

“Our new leadership team was very mobile, on the go between Ireland and the UK, and they needed access to company data from wherever they were,” said Kevin Minihane, IT manager at the C&C Group.

To add to that need, two corporate acquisitions in 2009 not only created a dispersed organization, but also increased the number of employees from about 500 to 900. 

Today, C&C maintains an existing wired Cisco network -- consisting of a Catalyst 3560 POE switch in its plant in Dublin, two Catalyst 4500 series core switches at its Clonmel, Ireland, cider mill, and a growing HP ProCurve wireless LAN based on dual M5M765 wireless LAN controllers, and the MSM310 and MSM320 APs.

“We use a number of tools to manage our current infrastructure. For our ProCurve switching environment, we use HP's ProCurve Manager (PCM), which we purchased when we purchased our HP switches,” said Minihane.

“For our WLAN infrastructure, we use the Web interface to the WLAN controllers, which allows us to make configuration changes to our WLAN environment and access points. We also use the PCM to manage our Cisco devices. For more ad hoc management, and for basic configuration changes, we use Kiwi CatTools to roll out configuration changes to multiple devices at a time,” Minihane adds.

For Minihane, all of these management tools work well individually, but there is a bottom line: “So far I haven’t discovered a solution that could do everything we need,” he said.

Why does unified network management matter?

If there is one common complaint among users, it's the lack of unified wired and wireless network management. That's because total cost of ownership/return on investment (TCO/ROI) isn’t quite as attainable until unified network management is achieved.

Unified network management should mean having one console that can handle common network functionality, such as planning, provisioning, configuring, monitoring (including performance, security and integrity), handling exceptions, logging and reporting. This console will also need the additional elements unique to wireless management, including connection reliability, spectrum management and monitoring, location and tracking functionality, as well as additional security concerns. Even then, some wireless experts believe that certain wireless functions will have to be maintained separately.

“I think there may well be wireless-only edge/access devices that need to be deployed and managed differently than today’s wired Ethernet switches. That doesn’t mean that the network isn’t integrated, it just means that some tasks will require unique tools,” said Phifer, referring to those appliances that handle deeper spectrum analysis, for example.

Planning the transition to integrated network management

For IT organizations, transitioning from a primary wired Ethernet infrastructure to a unified wired/wireless LAN, it can be difficult to determine where to start.The answer is planning.

“Convergence and unification has to be addressed at the physical layer as well as management, security, policies and services,” said Chris Kozup, director, mobility and borderless networks at Cisco.

Next, the roadmap toward unified network management begins with an assessment and evaluation of the existing network infrastructure, and how an organization wants to grow the network based on which applications need to be accessed by which users from which locations.

“Don’t assume that the network architecture that you’ve had is the best architecture for the future,” said Joel Vincent, director of product marketing at Meru Networks.

Once organizations look at the use case, they must assess capacity and ports, considering the allocation of bandwidth to build out the WLAN.

Vendor selection based on solution price/features and an RFP process follows. Industry experts recommend opting for 802.11n 5 GHz technology for greater throughput capacity and less interference.

The next steps are installation and tuning, followed by ongoing operations and network expansion. Unified network management tools are largely a function of which vendor’s equipment a company opts for. Third-party tools will still dominate security management and performance management of the wireless LAN.

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