Cloud-based network management has emerged as the imminent trend in the enterprise space. Several networking manufactures offer bundled-in software-as-a-service (SaaS) management programs with their cloud-ready hardware. We’ll take a look at the key differences among them—namely that some require yearly licenses (Meraki®), while others come with lifetime licensing right out of the box (Open-Mesh and others)—and sort out features that might make paying an annual licensing fee a worthwhile investment.
How cloud networking works
Cloud-ready network appliances have properties like any piece of networking hardware, but with an added management feature where they communicate with a cloud server once powered on. These types of devices are Power-over-Ethernet (PoE), which means once you plug in a live Cat-5 Ethernet cable it’s good to go—no need for AC power. As soon as a cloud-ready switch or access point is powered on, it immediately searches out the manufacturer’s server in the cloud, and from there users can access that same server, and configure and monitor the hardware using the manufacturer’s proprietary SaaS dashboard.
From the dashboard, you’re able to assign access points a name, monitor if they are working, view Internet traffic patterns, check browsing logs, and know whether or not users are getting sufficient bandwidth to do what they need to do on the Internet. A remotely-located network administrator can check if the network is up to par anywhere a cloud-ready access point is deployed. That’s the beauty of cloud networking: one administrator is able to monitor 10, 100, even 1,000 access points spread out across multiple local area networks (LANs).
Open-Mesh’s CloudTrax Network Management System—It’s Free
If you deploy Open-Mesh hardware, like the OM2P router and access point for instance, you gain access to the CloudTrax system and dashboard. This is a free service with a lot of useful features for tracking outages and traffic load. There is also a monetization feature where users access a Wi-Fi connection through a pay wall. These features, along with the low price point of the hardware, make Open-Mesh a popular deployment for retail franchises, RV parks, and public Wi-Fi spaces—any situation where multi-site management is a necessity.
The screenshot below gives you a pretty good idea of what you’re getting with CloudTrax. Did we mention it is free?
Cisco Meraki Network Management Features
You’ll immediately notice that Meraki gear is a level up in terms of price point, mainly due to an annual licensing requirement. NeweggBusiness sells access points with bundled licensing, and there are significant price breaks for longer license terms. You will see that when you compare pricing on a MR16 AP with a five year term with a MR16 with a ten year term, for instance. Additionally, the Meraki switches and security appliances require license terms as well, which NeweggBusiness bundles in with the hardware. You will see similar price breaks on longer terms here also; compare the MS200-8P network switch with a ten-year license against the same model with a five-year. Same goes for the security appliances; if you buy the hardware (MX60W Small Branch Wireless Security Appliance) then the MX60W Advanced Security License must be purchased as well. Again, the longer the term, the less expensive it is year-over-year.
With Meraki, you’re looking at a significantly higher total cost of ownership than Open-Mesh. Generally speaking, the hardware specifications aren’t all that different. Meraki’s value proposition comes in the management platform, which offers the most robust features management and security features available on the market. Just a few of the commonly named extras things: network access controls that require an up-to-date antivirus before allowing a device to access the network, automated assigning of policies by device type, and a full suite of mobile device management (MDM) services.
There are literally hundreds of pages of documentation outlining Meraki’s network management features readily available by Google search. This can be daunting—until you take the dashboard for a spin, which Cisco lets you do for free. Users laud the interface (you’ll be hard-pressed to find a negative review of it) for being straightforward enough for an IT generalist to manage huge, multi-location networks. Their tech support has a reputation of responsiveness should any problems or questions crop up. There’s a reason that Cisco owns 70 percent of the enterprise networking market.
“If you talk to Cisco customers, rather than viewing them as a predatory, monopolistic company they would like to get away from, they view them as the best tech vendor they deal with in terms of helping the customer succeed,” 451 Research analyst Peter Christy told CIO magazine in a recent article.
Is Cisco making a ton of money on the licensing? Absolutely. Do users save a ton of time and resources on managing big networks? You bet they do.
What should you choose?
As with anything in IT, what you choose comes down to your needs. The general rule of thumb for picking between a free cloud networking service like Open-Mesh and a paying top dollar for something like Meraki comes down the question of how critical is your network to your business? If you experience an outage, will your café customers be inconvenienced, or will business be halted altogether? Are you dealing with HIPAA or other regulatory measures and by law require the highest level of network security? Also consider the network administrating (troubleshooting) skillset of your IT staff—overall time spent fixing the network should be accounted for as well. It’s not a question of hardware; it’s a question of needs.
One you identify your needs, it should be simple to determine whether Meraki is worth it for your organization, or if you should be checking into something less robust and pricey like Open-Mesh.