Meraki provides an antidote to the fear of wireless

When I tell people I am a wireless sceptic, I find it hard to get enough impact into those words to correctly represent my position.

It’s just not strong enough: wireless allergic could help, I guess, except that implies a helpless personal disability and that’s not what my scepticism is like. It’s more like a lasting, lurking horror, watching people tipping all their personal data down a frictionless laundry-chute, which sends the data straight into a gleeful huddle of PhD-grade hackers.

So, yes, I’m not too convinced about the reliability of wireless. But before my sceptic status becomes too vivid, I should point out that this reverie has been brought on by a nudge in the direction of Meraki.

Meraki is rather pleased to find itself in a market-analyst’s construct called the “Magic Quadrant”. For those of you who have never encountered this magical incantation: it’s a means of identifying the degree of mover-and-shakerness of companies within a portfolio of suppliers, some of whom may not even have thought of themselves as part of a portfolio.

In this instance, the marketplace in question here is wi-fi base stations – not just the traditional consumer-style single antenna sort, but the pan-galactic variety, in which firms with multiple locations don’t have to keep on issuing multi-page connection guides for all their smartphone-equipped staff that hop between locations, or even merely walk around a suitably large site.

I know; there’s a reasonably mature kit list for federating together a lot of WAPs so they cover the ground and don’t each maintain a separate list of usernames, passwords and WPA keys: The confusing thing about Meraki in this context is that they want to be included in the world of Cloud providers, despite the fact that even the briefest of surfs across their site throws up their range of dedicated hardware. I don’t want to seem churlish but I think it’s only fair to reflect a knee-jerk reaction I know will come from a lot of choosers & users: How can they be in the cloud, when they are selling little boxes to plug into DSL routers?

Easy answer: just in the same way as Skype or Sipgate or any other centralised* resource can be in the cloud. Meraki puts its wi-fi management front end up in the public cloud, where the harassed sysadmin can reach it, no matter which branch office he’s visiting today. Meraki boxes have minimal local management – they wake up, call home (assuming themselves to be on a garden variety outbound-biased DSL connection) – and then set up a much larger environment, picking up passwords and settings common to all the other branches.

I admit a little shiver when I read through the brief on the Meraki site. I have a personal interest and expertise around trying to set up multi-site networks, especially multi-country ones, and one of the unbreakable rules of that type of deployment is that the ISP is fundamentally out to get you.

While it’s fair to expect business ISPs to offer two-way (that is, static-addressed) connections, the definition of “business ISP” is progressively more difficult to pin down as you move out of broadly de-regulated countries (in effect, the English-speaking world) and further towards the preserve of the national dinosaur-grade backbone PTT carrier (broadly, the rest of Europe and their various curious empire fragments). Eventually, the definition of “Internet connection” breaks down too, especially in Africa, where users can be charged not for the connection, but for the protocols they propose to use – so POP3 is extra, as is SSL, and so forth.

Meraki strikes me as having established a very fine balance in the midst of this difficult and shifting world: they are using the smart parts of the BYOC doctrine (use what the consumer gets given for the least cost option) to achieve something that’s commonly only truly properly achieved by the very largest scale, heavy-engineering types of network deployment (give people transparent wi-fi access over more than the reach of one base station).

Does that qualify them to truly lay claim to the cloud word, over and above other labels that might not be so sexy, but might better describe what they have achieved? Maybe: the thought that Meraki has put into its systems (base stations retain the distributed config, even when the internet link is down) shows a much more business-ready style than has been the norm in these messy, showy first-generation efforts.

The company claims its kit replaces a total of four distinct boxes commonly found in branches, though I suspect they are pushing the boat out a bit by claiming that layer 7 application-specific traffic shaping is something commonly found in a retail park outlet with a couple of tills.

A key trick which may well attract certain types of retailer is that the centralised management system allows for paid-for metered access: This is a feature which most of the time I find businesses investigate just to have an answer for the “can I use your connection” types, and then retreat hurriedly from when they find out how convoluted, painful or amateur the solutions are.

Meraki’s offering is a bit of a category-buster. If we must wedge it into our current taxonomy then I’d say it’s PaaS, with a side offering of IaaS, though in neither case does it fit the original definitions of either. That is what makes it so interesting.

[* When I say centralised, I don’t mean to imply that Meraki isn’t distributed in its own infrastructure though, as is always the way with cloud services, there’s no immediate way to tell. What centralised means in this context is, with a single logical access address. Of course, that could lead to thousands of AWS or Akamai instances. That’s kind of the point]