Your wired LAN is dumb…or at least it should be

Why aren’t our wired LANs more like WLANs? Wireless vendors have already been doing for years what switch manufacturers are only starting to get into in the last couple years. A rough comparison of a few attributes of typical wired and wireless networks shows striking differences in how we manage our LANs and WLANs.

The wireless LAN

  1. utilizes a centralized controller-based management model
  2. partially or even totally disaggregates the control and data planes
  3. employs an easy-to-use graphical user interface
  4. uses easy-to-deploy dumb access points
  5. has built-in tools to deploy new features and policy across the entire WLAN at once
  6. has a built-in dashboard for real-time analytics
  7. is more focused on end-user identity rather than on subnets

 The wired LAN

  1. utilizes a decentralized management model in which each device must be touched
  2. combines the control and data planes on the same piece of hardware
  3. is managed by a command line interface
  4. requires tedious manual configuration across the entire infrastructure
  5. requires significant time to plan and implement any new policies
  6. utilizes costly third party analytics tools requiring additional resources, licensing, cost and time to configure
  7. is almost completely focused on subnets and VLANs instead of end-user identity

So why aren’t our wired LANs more like WLANs? I want to have the very same benefits managing my wired network as I do managing hundreds of access points with a pair of solid wireless LAN controllers, and I want to be able to deploy new features and custom policies across hundreds of switches just as easily as I can create and apply policy with a few clicks on a WLC.

I know it’s much more complicated than that. Managing a wired network in that way would require consistent standardization among platforms and configuration. I also know that the attributes I identified can be very vendor specific, but I’m oversimplifying a lot to make my point. For most vendors, access points are typically pretty dumb when it comes to the control plane and use a centralized management device to make the network magic happen. Some vendors are starting to push more of the data plane intelligence back to the AP, but it’s in an effort to make the data plane more resilient in the event of a controller failure. In most cases, though, the controller manages each AP’s radios. To me that’s one of the strengths of how we do wireless today. It should be a simple matter to apply the same thinking to our wired networks.

Cisco Prime offers a little of the management capability, but the customers I’ve worked with aren’t using it anyway. I’ve set it up dozens of times and showed network administrators how to create templates to manage both their wired and wireless devices, but still netadmins end up using it only for the heat maps and to manage their WLCs. Instead of becoming their single pane of glass, it’s become yet another pane of glass. The intelligence in the network is still decentralized on each individual switch.

When it comes to managing many like devices, such as the switches used in typical access and distribution layers, the devices themselves need to be dumber and their management smarter. Open network automation focuses on device management and gathering meaningful network data, and some vendors are starting to develop proprietary full-blown orchestration methods that go beyond device management. (Cisco is working on their Digital Network Architecture, and Dell has their Open Networking switches, for example.)  I don’t care that much if it’s proprietary or not  – what I do care about is doing networking better.

Wireless networking has been doing this already for years, so why can’t our wired LANs be more like WLANs?


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