Our final presenters of the first day of Wireless Field Day 2 were Meraki. We jumped in the Tech Field Day Token Bus and headed up to San Francisco. A nice drive with lots of interesting sights. We pulled up to the Meraki offices and jumped out ready to see what they had in store.
A quick word about the Meraki offices. Should I ever find myself able to build the perfect office, I think Meraki would be the company I would pattern it after. They have a great “startup” vibe that allows a lot of freedom and collaboration among all the employees. The support department and developers sit just a few feet away from marketing and design. Each floor feels like a great place to work and it looks as though everyone has their own sense of style and fun. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the prodigious amount of snacks available to everyone, from cheese puffs to healthier options like protein bars and almonds. And there may be a kegerator or two.
I went into this presentation knowing little to nothing about Meraki. I had heard the name before and I knew they had some kind of wireless access devices, but beyond that was an unknown. Meraki jumped in quickly with a bit of a history lesson about the founding of the company at MIT with a rooftop campus-wide AP wireless project. I found it quite fascinating that three college kids with some big ideas took what they had learned about deploying rooftop wireless access and created a company around it. Their MIT project formed the core of Meraki.
What Meraki offers from the hardware perspective on the wireless side isn’t nearly as important as they manage it. The real power is in the Cloud Controller software that they use to manage and collect information about the environment. The APs use a small 1 Kbit channel to send information and statistics back to the Meraki cloud that allows for control and reporting. If you have an environment that uses plenty of Meraki gear, the control channel could grow rather large, but the packets are rather small and shouldn’t impact your overall Internet bandwidth and performance.
Speaking of bandwidth, one of the features that caught my attention was the ability of the Cloud Controller software to identify and categorize traffic. If you’ve ever seen Netflow data collected by a tool like Solarwinds, you know that the network has an impressive amount of information that it can share with you. Meraki uses their own identification and fingerprinting tools to help classify the traffic that they see in your network and present it to you in an easy-to-digest format. This helps you to identify bandwidth hogs and top talkers quickly and easily, as George Stefanik found out when we checked the conference room AP and found George pushing it to the limit. You can easily shift focus from an individual user to protocol to find out if there is a lot of undesired traffic, like Bittorrent or peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing, either encrypted or unencrypted. You can even choose to create profiles that allow you to restrict the amount of bandwidth that a particular user or device can consume in a given time.
You might say, “That’s great Tom. But what about all the BYOD clients in my office that I can’t manage?” Well, Meraki feels your pain as well. The Cloud Controller software allows you to identify iDevices in the network and do all kinds of interesting things. You can pull a Meraki app down onto the device that gives you visibility into the Mobile Device Management (MDM) APIs that Apple uses to create restrictions. You can turn off applications, push profiles, and even implement things like parental restrictions from a single menu. You can also apply these profiles to a single device or a group of devices. For someone that works in a K-12 education environment, this would be a huge advantage to allow a group of “corporate owned” iPads used in the classroom to be locked down to provide learning resources, while at the same time providing a default profile that can restrict the bandwidth utilization of “non-corporate” devices or even prevent them from connecting entirely.
The skeptic might say, “Fine. They’ve got great stuff for the wireless network. But I’ve still got users out there that have wired-only connections. What good does cloud-based awesomesauce do then?” Well, Meraki thought of that too. They’ve taken their innovative management platform and started moving it horizontally to things like firewalls and even down into switches. The merchant silicon explosion now allows a company like Meraki to provide a reliable hardware platform at a fraction of the cost it would take to fabricate chips and have long research and development cycles. Instead, the can just buy pre-fabbed Broadcom or Atheros chips and let the Cloud Controller do all the work. The common theme among all their various connection points means that you won’t have to concern yourself with being confused by a foreign interface when jumping from AP controller to to firewall. That will make it easy to manage not only for administrators on site or in a central location, but also for anyone that may use it in a managed services type of configuration.
Meraki had a great Oprah Moment with gift bags on the way in containing a Meraki t-shirt, reusable water bottle, pen, keychain/bottle opener combo, and a Meraki MR16. Some nice trinkets to keep on the desk and a really nice trinket to put through it’s paces.
I think Meraki has some great software running the show. It’s intuitive, concise, and provides me with the depth I need to do my job efficiently and completely. The culture of Meraki also lends itself well to a group that is focused on getting a great product out there and showing us the “power of the cloud”. I’m going to give the AP a decent chance to not only prove to me what’s capable with the new fusion of merchant silicon and good-old-fashioned programming know how, but also to harness the ability to deploy them to a multitude of remote sites and manage anything, anywhere, anytime. Meraki may not be for every use case, but for many small to medium businesses in need of connecting remote sites with wired/wireless connectivity while still maintaining ease-of-management, they appear to have a good grasp of things. Also, for anyone interested, the word “meraki” is Greek and has no real direct English translation. The closest translations are either “to do something you love with soul and creativity” or “to set a very elegant table”. While I’m sure that Meraki the company prefers the first definition, they’ve more than earned a place at the Wireless Field Day table.
Wireless Field Day 2 Disclaimer
Meraki was a sponsor of Wireless Field Day 2. As such, they were responsible for covering a portion of my travel and lodging expenses while attending Wireless Field Day 2. In addition, they provided me with a Meraki t-shirt, MR16 access point, Meraki Camelbak water bottle, and bottle opener key chain They did not ask for, nor where they promised any kind of consideration in the writing of this review/analysis. The opinions and analysis provided within are my own and any errors or omissions are mine and mine alone.