Cloud Networking with Cisco Meraki

I was on the lookout for a new network solution for my company. At first I looked at the latest routers with the latest hardware, wireless AC, beam-forming technology, and cloud networking seem to be the latest buzzwords in the industry, but what does all this mean and how can it help my company?

I needed more than just a router, I needed something that was easy to manage, could handle the amount of data we used and something that had great security. I had read about all sorts of different solutions, from enterprise level equipment that was costly, bulky, and complicated, to more familiar consumer products, like the ones I was used to. Over the years I’ve became an expert in troubleshooting my wireless network because the ones I’ve owned always seemed to give me trouble. I naturally like to tinker with things, and I had spend a great deal of time getting my home network perfect. But this was different, how do I support a robust network with users transmitting somewhere between 15 to 20 gigs a day of data, and be able to provide a fast, secure connection that doesn’t leave our company vulnerable to attacks?

The first company I looked at was of course Cisco, Cisco offers a line of small business routers that are decent, we have been using one in the office for several years, but the lack of firmware and software updates make the products obsolete after a few years. Netgear has always been pretty good, but they don’t offer much for the business customer. At home I use an Apple router, and have for a number of years, they last forever, they are extremely easy to set up, and they offer robust features. I also read about companies like AirTight and Aruba Networks, they offer enterprise level WiFi access points for a reasonable price, but they seemed like all the rest…

I found Meraki while I was reading some forums and decided to look them up to find out more. I was impressed, their concept is so simple, make enterprise networking easy and manageable. This is all done thanks to this new “cloud networking” platform. It all seemed legit. I remember reading a few years ago about how Cisco was at risk of being put out of business because of the traditional nature of their existing infrastructure, and how cloud managed networks wouldn’t mesh well with their architecture. I hadn’t seen an actual product that had used cloud networking, so I was naturally intrigued, this video pretty much sums it up:

Seems pretty cool right? How simple? How cool! The nerd in me was blown away! Ok, I admin I was a little sold, but that was probably due to the fact that they we’re handing out access point for free as long as you watch a 30 minute webinar and have to take a few calls from their sales reps. No biggie, I had done a lot worse for free stuff, so this was going to be awesome!

I caught the webinar on Presence Analytics, it was supposed to last an hour, but it ran short at only 30 minutes, the information they provided was a little more in depth than the information on the website, and I got a chance to learn a little bit more about navigating the dashboard. Presence analyitcs was actually one of the features I was most excited about. Working for a digital marketing agency we’re all about analytics, but this was different, instead of tracking web data, we have the capability to track statistics for users that come in range of our network, physically. It sounds a bit big-brotherish but it’s not anything more than just numbers, but for retail and other businesses that have stores and physical locations, this was the perfect solution. From what I understood about the feature, it works like this: A user comes within range of your network, he has an iPhone in his pocket, his iPhone is pinging different wireless SSID’s to try to find one that it knows, or even an open network, but while doing this it gives out a little bit of information about itself. Actually it gives quite a bit more information than you would think, it gives it’s MAC address, it gives it’s hostname, which in most cases looks something like “Bobs-iPhone” or in other words personally identifiable information. Although this is the case, the Meraki AP only collects numbers. The numbers that it collects are very valuable, they tell you two things, how long a visitor has been at your site, and if they are a repeat customer. This completely replaces traditional counting methods, like the traditional walk-in counters that we’ve all seen when we enter and exit a business.

Another innovative feature I liked about Meraki was the Facebook integration, it allows you to have your users check-in on Facebook whenever they want to use your guest WiFi, this also integrates with Presence Analytics and even gives you the ability to push coupons to repeat customers whenever they come near your location. A little creepy I’m sure, but definitely pretty sweet too.

I was given a login to the Meraki Dashboard a week before the equipment arrived, I got to know the interface, and set up our network before the equipment had even arrived. The day I got the AP I decided to plug it in at the worst time. I was convinced it was a simple plug and play operation, and didn’t think it would interrupt any users. I was totally wrong, I brought the whole network down for 20 minutes and it couldn’t have been a worse time, several phone conversations dropped, and everyone gave me the stink eye. So I did what I had to, gave up troubleshooting and replaced the old hardware. I plugged the AP into my computer, and saw that it was a simple setting causing the problem. I was telling the AP to create it’s own network on top of the existing network, basically a double NAT situation. So I fixed it, waited until the end of the day, plugged it in and bam. We were now networking — in the cloud.

After a few weeks of using the AP I’d say that I’m generally pretty happy with it, it was as easy to set up and maintain as I had hoped, and it had the all of the capabilities of an enterprise network that I wanted. The one catch to using cloud platforms is that you have to pay for licensing. The AP’s themselves are not horribly expensive, they start at $399 (for the one that we’re using) and go up to $1,399, but for each access point you have to pay $150 a year to use the cloud platform. Not a huge money waster to be honest, considering all software and firmware updates are all done automatically, you get 24/7 support, and if you have a large network to manage, the benefits and time you’ll save is well worth it. I would personally recommend Meraki, I think they are really on to something. This is for sure the future of networking, and I think Cisco was smart for buying them out. One thing I’d say is that now that I’ve been spoiled with all of the benefits of networking in the cloud, I may never go back to traditional networking.

By Cameron Fergus, Web Developer Globe Runner