Traditionally, Wi-Fi deployments require IT staff to manage on-premises. But cloud is changing that, enabling controllers in the cloud as well as new revenue streams for solutions providers to sell cloud-managed Wi-Fi.

Kelly Teal, Contributing Editor

July 25, 2014

6 Min Read
Wi-Fi Gets a Cloud Makeover

Kelly TealMore organizations are deploying Wi-Fi as mobility becomes ubiquitous and people expect constant connectivity. These days, doctors and dentists, for example, offer free Wi-Fi in their lobbies so patients may surf the Web while waiting for their appointments. Grocery stores stream Wi-Fi so customers can check for coupons. The examples are endless.

Traditionally, Wi-Fi deployments require IT staff to manage on-premises controllers that determine access permissions and security settings. But cloud is changing that, enabling controllers in the cloud. This so-called cloud-managed Wi-Fi is creating an opportunity for channel partners to build new revenue streams for their companies and deliver greater business value to their customers.

Cloud-Managed Wi-Fi vs. Managed Wi-Fi

A lot of vendors are promoting their managed Wi-Fi services as “cloud-managed.” They can get away with that because it’s easy to confuse the two. However, there’s a key tip-off for discerning whether managed Wi-Fi truly is cloud-based — if it is, there’s no on-premises controller for managing access points.

“Cloud-managed Wi-Fi refers to Wi-Fi where network management takes place centrally through a Web-based tool via the cloud, as opposed to the traditional ‘box-style’ controller,” said Nolan Greene, research analyst within IDC’s network infrastructure group. Cloud-managed Wi-Fi, Greene said, is a variation on managed Wi-Fi in which a third party deploys and manages all aspects of the wireless network.

For channel partners, cloud-managed Wi-Fi offers the chance to earn recurring revenue from the sale of managed services, plus additional residual compensation for extras that can be layered on.

What’s Driving Adoption

By 2018, global revenue for cloud-managed Wi-Fi infrastructure and services will reach $2.5 billion, up from a mere $653 million in 2014, IDC said in an April report. The growth is expected because businesses see cloud-managed Wi-Fi as the solution to several problems. Specifically, cloud-managed Wi-Fi:

1. Standardizes wireless networks across multiple locations. Often, discrete offices install their own solutions, resulting in a mish-mash of brands, not to mention security and quality levels.

2. Ensures compliance with regulations such as HIPAA for the medical industry, for example, as doctors and nurses must have secure wireless access to patients’ electronic records. One way this is done is by choosing a vendor that offers pre-defined compliance reports that map wireless vulnerabilities and threats to specific requirements. Not all Wi-Fi services contain such capabilities.

3. Offers central management for both policy and maintenance and access point configurations (APs can be shipped, pre-configured, to individual branches). In on-premises scenarios, oversight is piecemeal, and APs must be configured separately by IT staff, eating up company money and worker time.

4. Eliminates the need for expensive controllers and with them the need to manage the gear, pay for maintenance and even keep a spare unit on hand in case of failure.

5. Enables outsourcing so the IT department can tackle projects that help the organization make money rather than spend time on break-fix duties that neither make use of staff talents nor contribute to a company’s financials.

6. Cuts down on capex purchases. In some scenarios, cloud-managed Wi-Fi is delivered by a cloud provider as a 100 percent opex service, but even in the more common scenarios delivered by an MSP, enterprises need only buy APs and annual licenses, not controllers.

Ways to Offer Cloud-Managed Wi-Fi

With cloud-managed Wi-Fi, you can be involved in your customer’s Wi-Fi deployments at various levels, from hands-off to all-in. Here are some options:

Resell Services. If you want a vendor to handle everything — from Wi-Fi network design, equipment selection and installation to ongoing monitoring, maintenance and support — that’s where a service provider such as Lightpath comes in. With the help of integrator Presidio, Lightpath oversees all tasks including all cabling among APs and switches, and any required on-site equipment installation. It then charges the customer a monthly service fee that includes the “rental” for the hardware. Channel partners earn monthly commissions just as they would for selling Lightpath’s voice and data services. This kind of end-to-end strategy frees you up after the initial sale and may appeal to agents and VARs that are accustomed to working on commission-based models.

Become an MSP. Of course, if you already sell WLAN APs, you can become an MSP yourself, but that requires investments in infrastructure and expertise. Cloud Wi-Fi provider AirTight Networks is offering resellers a shortcut. In March the company announced a new program called EZ Street to help resellers transition from selling boxes and licenses to delivering cloud-managed Wi-Fi plus security, big data analytics and customer engagement applications. Under EZ Street, AirTight offers its WLAN and wireless intrusion prevention system (WIPS) management console, tools for managing multiple customers, a guest manager app with built-in Wi-Fi analytics and “preflighted” access point templates to eliminate the headaches and drudgery of equipment configuration.

Add Business Value. AirTight’s platform further lets channel partners help their customers with branding and marketing. It does that by allowing partners to conduct customer/visitor analytics and implement marketing campaigns for the client. Early deployments show as much as a 25 percent increase in revenue for those organizations, said Anita Pandey, vice president of global marketing for AirTight Networks.  This means that partners often can tap marketing budgets instead of IT budgets for Wi-Fi deployments. “CMOs are willing to subsidize the purchase of the WLAN, given its key role in validating and improving the performance of their marketing programs,” Pandley said.

Cloud4Wi offers a similar proposition, although its platform layers on to an existing network. With Cloud4Wi, you can help your customer, such as a coffee shop, subsidize free Wi-Fi to customers and actually sell more scones, etc., by creating hotspot services, such as branding, marketing and couponing.  Through Cloud4Wi’s portal, you could create a splash page that offers coffee shop customers 20 percent off a scone with the purchase of a cup of coffee. Or you could require customer registration, such as with a cellphone number; then, when the consumer leaves the coffee shop, an automatic message will send to that number with a special offer for the next visit. That way, instead of being another salesperson, you serve as “a business consultant and help solve a business problem,” said Brodie Kirkeby, vice president of USA sales for channel-only Cloud4Wi. And you can charge for professional services, as well as ongoing managed services.

Best Practices

There are some best practices that apply no matter how you provision cloud-managed Wi-Fi.

  • Shift the paradigm. Move from being a box seller to being a trusted adviser. “With cloud-managed Wi-Fi, there are more opportunities to layer on managed services, given the subscription model, and with that comes the opportunity to take on more of a consulting role,” said IDC’s Greene.

  • Define your cloud-managed Wi-Fi specialty. Standardize your service model, so you’re not trying to tailor yourself to every potential client. “Understand what business you want to take to your customers,” said Cloud4Wi’s Kirkeby.

  • Keep things simple. Take that standardized service model to the next level by thinking in terms of templates. For example, when it comes to physical deployments, if you’re not doing the installation yourself, color-code cables and have precise instructions written down for reference so workers know exactly what to do, said AirTight’s Pandey. Templates also work for Aps — decide the device settings once and keep them handy for the next customer.

Kelly Teal is senior editor of Channel Partners.
Twitter: @kellymteal
LinkedIn: linkedin.com/in/kellyteal

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About the Author(s)

Kelly Teal

Contributing Editor, Channel Futures

Kelly Teal has more than 20 years’ experience as a journalist, editor and analyst, with longtime expertise in the indirect channel. She worked on the Channel Partners magazine staff for 11 years. Kelly now is principal of Kreativ Energy LLC.

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