Subscribers to the boundless digital magazine will receive a regular digest of the most recently posted content.

The 5 Economic Advantages To Life Without Wi-Fi Controllers

By Craig Mathias in · Technology · March 2, 2017

As we discussed last time, after a decade-long downward spiral, the WLAN controller is indeed dead. 

Controllers are costly and complex, complicating initial deployment, scalability over time, upgrades and replacements, and ongoing management and operations.  

As a consequence, controller-based Wi-Fi solutions are being superseded by distributed architectures and cloud-based services, enabling organizations to expand coverage and capacity seamlessly, simplify their network and IT operations, and non-disruptively and effortlessly upgrade as organizations grow and their needs evolve.

As we also discussed last time, Getting rid of the controller does not eliminate the control function that is essential to every WLAN architecture, just the embodiment of that control function in a separate unit.getting rid of the controller does not eliminate the control function that is essential to every WLAN architecture, just the embodiment of that control function in a separate unit ... be that a hardware appliance, virtual machine, or even a Cloud-based function.

Rather than centralizing control (think of control as the “operating system” of the WLAN, providing all manner of scheduling and optimization functions that deliver the performance, security, and more that we all expect) in one of these, the control function can be distributed across APs. 

And, we don’t mean building the controller into a special class of AP; we mean that control itself is embodied in distributed software, not a centralized box.

Given the amazing performance (and especially the amazing price/performance) of the microprocessors available for embedding into contemporary APs, distributed control is clearly the way to go. There’s no downside in terms of lost or missing functionality, or an impact on overall system performance.

Just look at the Internet itself – a clear example of how a (very) distributed system can meet current needs, grow cost-effectively over time, and do all of this without a central controller.

Economic advantage to life without WLAN controllers

There are also some serious economic win/wins inherent in the end of the controller era.

1) Initially, and most obviously, the capital expense (CapEx) inherent in the purchase of a controller simply vanishes. The cost of a controller (and note that at least two will be required in order to provide fault-tolerance) can be significant, along with software licenses, upgrades, and eventual replacement as both new technologies and traffic volumes so dictate.

Don’t discount the costs of software license fees and required upgrades even as networks grow only in terms of coverage, and the eventual replacement of controllers as they become obsolete – these costs can be enormous!

2) On the operating expense (OpEx) side, eliminating the controller means that there are fewer network elements to manage. Upgrades become non-disruptive – just add or replace an AP

Assuming that the management system in use optimizes for operations-staff productivity (and clearly no one wants a solution where such isn’t the case!), lower operating costs are all but guaranteed. Simplicity is always less expensive than its alternative.

3) And, of course, with management services moving to the Cloud, even fewer local hardware resources (in this case, servers and/or management appliances) are required here as well.

The Cloud provides the scalability required to support growing organizations, but, unlike the situation with controllers, transparently. And it’s easier to add new functions like analytics and automation with Cloud-based implementations – no loading new software releases into controllers and hoping for the best.

4) Wait – we’re not done yet. The elimination of the controller has strategic implications for network planners and finance types as well. It’s pretty clear that, following Occam’s Razor, networks should be as simple as they can be, but no simpler. 

This means that there must never be any compromise to the features, functions, capabilities, and performance required to meet a given organization’s current, and as we implied above, future, network requirements.

But the cost factors involved here also require that every element of a given solution to which a cost can be assigned (and controllers, again, can add big costs to any installation) must be justified in terms of (a) its centrality to the mission, and (b) cost-effectiveness.

Network planners can sleep easy – eliminating the controller need not eliminate anything else. And the folks in finance aren’t going to balk when an unnecessary expense is eliminated, are they? No controller = much lower total cost of ownership (TCO).

5) And one final point – all of the above is true for organizations of any size, including SMBs. Many smaller firms have historically been unable to cost-justify the enterprise-class WLANs they really need due to the cost of the controller, and have resorted instead to residential-class solutions – a big mistake just in the domains of management and security alone.

SMBs can now get started with mission-appropriate network solutions and grow easily and transparently over time – just like big companies. Disruption? Unnecessary costs? High operating expense? All gone – and for good!

It’s never been easier to deploy WLAN solutions that are cost-effective, easy to live and grow with, and which include all of the enterprise-class features required. And with the death of the controller, it’s now more affordable than ever to do so.

All posts in this series:

Controllers Are Dead (And Why)

The 5 Economic Advantages To Life Without Wi-Fi Controllers

Craig Mathias (@farpoint1)

Craig J. Mathias is a Principal with Farpoint Group, an advisory firm specializing in wireless networking and mobile IT. Founded in 1991, Farpoint Group works with technology developers, manufacturers, carriers and operators, enterprises, and the financial community. Craig is an internationally-recognized industry and technology analyst, consultant, conference and event speaker, and author. He currently writes columns for Boundless, Connected Futures,, and various sites at TechTarget. Craig holds an Sc.B. degree in Computer Science from Brown University, and is a member of the Society of Sigma Xi and the IEEE.