Wednesday, April 15, 2015

MSPs and WISPs: The Case for Standalone APs

Managed Service Providers (MSPs) and Wireless Internet Service Providers (WISPs) is a fairly unique segment of the wired and wireless network deployment industry.   Such companies tend to focus on one or a few segments of the "small enterprise" market, which include the following types of verticals:
  • Multi-dwelling unit (MDU) residential
  • Hospitality
  • Student housing (i.e. dormitories, off-campus apartments)
  • Military housing
  • Seasonal (e.g. trailer parks)
  • Retail outlets
  • Chain restaurants
  • Public parks / beaches
  • Shopping malls / plazas
  • Transportation Depots (e.g. airports, bus stations, train stations)
  • Museums / Tourist attractions
An MSP or WISP is generally a small business (i.e. only a handful of employees plus some outsourced services) responsible for designing, deploying, and maintaining dozens, if not hundreds, of very similar networks.  As such, most MSPs and WISPs tend to be very cost-conscious and resource limited.  These networks tend not to have "leading edge" requirements, but still have to support the general trend of an ever-increasing number of devices from BYOD and IoT consuming an ever-increasing amount of bandwidth.   

Additionally, there is a huge need to be able to efficiently monitor, manage, and maintain all of these networks remotely via network management systems (NMSs).   To this end, many established MSPs and WISPs have spent the time, money, and effort in either developing home-grown NMSs or in customizing off-the-shelf NMSs.  While, to an outsider, there may be multiple "hodge-podge" of systems, these tend to be very finely tuned to meet the unique needs of the organization and the networks that are deployed.  Most of these types of systems rely upon SNMP for monitoring and configuration of on-site network equipment.

Therefore, the key to being successful in this business model is mass customization,
a term popular in the 1990s to describe manufacturing systems capable of mass-producing products while still being able to personalize them for particular applications and needs.  A Wi-Fi system must be tailored to both the physical structure in which it is installed, as well as to the number and types of devices and applications that  use the network for wireless connectivity.  Nonetheless, Wi-Fi networks tend to have a lot of common requirements across vertical markets and structures.  Furthermore, MSPs and WISPs do not want to “re-invent the wheel” for every deployment, and thus prefer having either one or a small number of products and tools used to deploy such systems for customers.  Hence, it is necessary to define a simple and standard architecture that can both be replicated over and over again while easily tailored for specific projects.

Each site network will generally consist of a network controller, one or more switches, and access points.
  • The network controller is a multi-function device, providing routing, DHCP, DNS resoltuion, captive portal, bandwidth throttling, firewall, and network device monitoring capabilities.  The network controller will typically talk to a cloud-based OSS or NMS so it can be centrally monitored and managed.  As such, this device serves both as the brains of each network and the link back to the central NMSs.   While many companies manufacture and sell such devices, often targeted to particular verticals (e.g. MicroTik, Guest Internet Services, Nomadix, RGNets, PurpleWiFi, WaveSpot, Mesh Networks, etc.), it is not uncommon for an MSP or WISP to either build their own or use a commercial product with major customizations.
  • The switches are in place to provide wired connectivity between the network controller and the access points.   Depending on the cost sensitivity and any specific network requirements such as the use of VLANs, switches can be unmanaged, smart, or fully Layer 2 managed.  They may or may not be PoE capable, depending on the number of access points, cameras, and other PoE devices on the network.  If the network provides mostly access to wired ports in each room with one or only a few APs in communal areas, which is not uncommon in MDU or student and military housing, PoE injectors may be used for the handful of devices. 
  • The access points also tend to be standardized.  Many MSPs and WISPs will deploy consumer-grade or low-end enterprise AP hardware with custom firmware written in OpenWRT.  For those using commercial APs, they will generally be operating in standalone mode, especially for relatively small deployments (i.e. sites with less than 5-10 APs).
The trend for access point manufacturers to have all of their APs either controller-based and/or cloud-based winds up not serving those MSPs who have invested in creating their own network management systems.  For many vendors, the APs must be managed from an on-site and/or cloud-based controller.  Such APs either do not work at all in standalone mode, or have a standalone mode that lacks many critical features of the AP required for normal operation.

There are access point vendors who are not architecturally-limited in this fashion, and thus can provide appropriate products for this market.  As one example, EnGenius has the Electron series of APs.  All AP functionality is available when operating in standalone mode, and the APs each have standardized CLI configurations for shell scripting and MIBs to allow for SNMP monitoring and control.  Furthermore, the web, CLI, and SNMP interfaces across different models of the Electron APs are virtually identical, making it extremely easy to create configuration scripts or SNMP write commands to manage and control groups of access points.  This facilitates an arbitrary mix of indoor and outdoor access points, as well as an easy transition from 802.11n to 802.11ac.

Of course, there are MSPs and WISPs that have not invested in building their own network management systems, and thus rely heavily upon the AP vendor for this functionality.  In this scenario, a centrally managed AP platform is clearly more appropriate.  In the case of EnGenius, the Neutron series of APs are managed from a central platform.  This management platform allows for centralized provisioning, firmware updates, and real-time monitoring of usage statistics and events, while still maintaining its distributed architecture.  This enables the network of APs to continue to operate independently of the AP controller, should communication with the AP controller be interrupted. 

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