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Merging wired and wireless networks spawns valuable analytics

Editor’s note: Industry analyst Zeus Kerravala provides his thoughts on Arista Networks’ effort to unify wired and wireless networks. Arista is a client of Kerravala’s ZK Research, a consulting firm based in Westminster, Mass.

Anyone who has used a wireless device has likely experienced a scenario where the device was connected to the access point but no network services worked. Or perhaps the device was connected, got booted off, and the user couldn’t re-establish connectivity. These problems have been around as long as Wi-Fi and can affect worker productivity and company revenue.

In the past, Wi-Fi flakiness was annoying, but it wasn’t business-critical because wireless was considered a network of convenience. Today, however, that has changed. Many workers need Wi-Fi to do their jobs because roaming around a campus has become the norm.

Also, Wi-Fi-connected IoT devices have proliferated. Consequently, wireless network outages or performance problems will result in key business processes not functioning properly.

Network administrators have a hard time troubleshooting Wi-Fi problems. A recent ZK Research survey found many network engineers spend about 20% of their time troubleshooting Wi-Fi issues. Often the problem disappears before it’s fixed. But the root cause is still there, and the issue will likely re-emerge.

The Wi-Fi network is now mission-critical and arguably as important as the data center network.

Data center and campus edge come together

Networking vendor Arista Networks, based in Santa Clara, Calif., is looking to address Wi-Fi issues. The company announced this week its Cognitive Campus architecture — a suite of tools that unifies wired and wireless networks by applying a software-driven approach to the campus. To date, Arista has found most of its success by selling its products into data centers.

Cognitive Campus sheds some light on Arista’s planned acquisition of Mojo Networks. Earlier this year, Arista said it would acquire Mojo, a company that sells its products at the campus edge, signaling it wants to be a bigger player in the enterprise networking market.

Arista has other campus products, but they’re targeted at the campus core where the requirements are similar to the data center. As a result, Mojo is Arista’s first true campus edge offering.

Specifically, Arista is looking to use Mojo’s Cognitive WiFi to remove traditional bottlenecks created by Wi-Fi controllers. Traditional Wi-Fi products have focused on ensuring connectivity rather than understanding application performance or client health.

Cognitive WiFi — combined with Arista’s CloudVision management suite — looks to provide better visibility into network performance so network engineers can identify the source of a Wi-Fi problem before it affects business. Arista has integrated the wireless edge information into CloudVision.

Mojo’s management model disaggregated the control and data planes so its cloud controller only handles management and configuration updates. If the access points (APs) lost the connection to the controller, the network would continue to operate. Most other APs would stop working if controller connectivity was lost.

As part of Cognitive Campus, Arista can aggregate data from the wired network and combine it with wireless data to perform cognitive analytics across the network.

The importance of analytics

Arista’s planned acquisition of Mojo left some industry observers puzzled. On the surface, a data center and the wireless edge don’t have much in common.

However, the intersection of the two spawns a treasure trove of data. As a result, analytics of the information can be used to transform the network. Arista’s Cognitive software brings some visibility and intelligence to the campus network.

Network professionals should rethink network operations and embrace the analytics and automation entering the campus network.

For the past five years, my advice to engineers has been: If you’re doing something today that’s not strategic to your company or resume, don’t do it, and find a way to automate it. Wireless connectivity and performance issues are excellent examples of this advice.

I’ve never heard of engineers getting hired because they were really good at solving problems that shouldn’t happen in the first place. Focus on software skills, data analytics and architecture, and understanding the user experience. Those skills are required in the digital era.

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