Offering cloud-managed wireless LAN services: One provider's journey

Joshua Smith, HIT strategist from Untangled Solutions, explains the effective and successful integration of cloud-managed wireless LANs into his company’s IT consulting services.

Many small and medium-sized businesses don't have the on-site IT staff to implement and manage a wireless LAN, but a new offering from PowerCloud Systems enables IT consultancy Untangled Solutions to offer cloud-based wireless LAN. Using PowerCloud, Los Angeles-based Untangled Solutions can drop D-Link wireless Access Points (APs) into a client site and then monitor and manage them remotely from the cloud. Untangled Solutions has provided this cloud-managed wireless LAN service for only a few months, but Untangled strategist Joshua Smith tells how effective the technology has been so far. Can you explain how a cloud-managed wireless LAN works?

Joshua Smith: Essentially we drop access points on site. It’s almost a plug and play situation. Once they are plugged in, we can then access each access point almost instantaneously from our cloud-based console. We have a single login for our engineers, and from there they can see each different site and assign those APs to these different sites. So we have a high-level overview of every site we have these cloud based access points deployed to. We can then manage each site, no matter how many APs they have, from one single login and webpage. How/why did you come up with the concept of implementing this service into SMBs?

Smith: We were at the CompTIA Breakaway in San Antonio last fall, and we ran into the CloudCommand guys at the D-link booth. They started talking to me and my business partner, Chris Johnson, and lured us in with the promise of some cool toys. We started talking about what we do and how being a smaller VAR, troubleshooting hardware issues is a pain -- sometimes you have to go on site, etc.  They started to explain how their solution allows you to leverage the fact that you have a lot more Internet access, and you can leverage these cloud-based items to do management from a single point off site. That really sparked our interest, because being a MSP, our big thing is we can offer our customers higher value and lower cost to both them and ourselves by not having to go to the location.

We’ve been involved in some other cloud solutions but nothing to this level of cloud-based hardware. They brought us in on the beta program, gave us a couple access points, deployed them in our offices, and we were pretty impressed. From there, we got more interested in how secure and locked down the security is in the access points. Rather than just a common wireless password that could be found out, there is authorization and authentication within this security system. This is really good for us as we get into the healthcare space because privacy and security is really big when we present our solutions to our customers. What challenge or problem does this technology resolve?

Smith: Leveraging remote management and monitoring, keeping an eye on everybody, solving problems remotely, rather than rolling these trucks in. It allows us to offer faster response time and more bang for our customers’ buck. Any time there was a problem with the AP before, we would have to be notified of it. That is an extra step that we would like to eliminate. It also gives us a reason to go with one solution. The more single solutions we can roll out, the faster we can build our knowledge base and become experts on those items -- troubleshooting quicker, etc. It helps us build that solid unified solution to present to our clients that we can be proactive on. We knew that there was an itch, but we didn’t know exactly where to scratch. When we met the CloudCommand guys and saw this PowerCloud, we thought, that’s it. How does this solution differ from other managed wireless LAN services?

Smith: We looked around a bit for other wireless LAN solutions. Sometimes people look for brand names and how many bells and whistles there are, but I find the quality of the support and relationship that you can forge with the vendor, you can sometimes put before the bells and whistles. If I have a problem and I have to wait a day or two to get a solution or to even get contacted back, then I don’t care if this thing only goes down one day a year, that one day is going to be a huge pain for both our clients and ourselves. To me, the relationship between us and PowerCloud has been so extraordinary that even if someone shows me a better solution, I’d be hesitant to jump on board because they are such a responsive, exciting and passionate company. We are looking forward to rolling out some higher-end enterprise equipment, especially looking at hospitals, where we’re going to need a bit more strength to handle more users. We are working with them to see what the hardware roadmap is and what else we can roll this out on. I want to go into my portal and start seeing APs, switches, firewalls, routers, IBS devices, etc. Can you tell me a bit about how your services will work with your customers, such as Blank Spaces and doctors’ offices?

Smith: BlankSpaces is our sandbox. It’s a co-working space where every type of business runs. They are supporting HR, PR, production, and marketing companies. That’s where we have our LA office. It’s fun, but a challenge. It was good because we could maunder all the traffic. That was our testbed.

Once we were happy with what CloudCommand had with BlankSpaces, we then went over to healthcare, which is our primary vertical. We provide the managed service, remote patching, monitoring, backups, voice and data, privacy and security assessments, basic business, but also make sure that they are HIPAA compliant by doing consulting on electronic medical record systems. We wanted to continue to leverage our remote monitoring support, but also see how we could lock down their wireless to be more in line with HIPAA regulations. So if there ever is an issue, we can show them right off the bat, we have done our best efforts to maintain the security of this network while still giving wireless access. In some places, there is no password, it is an open AP, which is a big issue. Or they are on an outdated protocol like WEP, which can be easily broken. We wanted to go into this office and get them to a point where we are showing them that we are actively taking security and privacy very seriously. Why is a cloud-managed wireless LAN network so beneficial in a healthcare setting?

Smith: Out of the box, doctors’ offices and other healthcare settings have a main network and a guest network. With the guest network, it will tunnel them right through to the Internet, but they won’t have access to network resources. That’s accessed via a Web portal and a single password. We found that to be helpful because we have gone to some of these doctors’ offices, and they’ll have patients with smartphones that want to check their email, and the receptionists will be giving the patients the wireless key; obviously not a good thing. They aren’t writing it down on a piece of paper either, they are yelling at them across the waiting area, so now any guy down the hall knows the password. We can have that guest network sitting out in public, because all they’ll have access to is the Internet. The worst they can do is start downloading things, but we can go in the cloud, see who’s soaking up the bandwidth and bump them off the network. So to instantly give the waiting room access to the Internet, especially now with iPads, iPhones, etc., patients want to be doing something as they wait.

In addition, some doctors’ offices will have one email address, and communicate through Post-its or may not have a voicemail system, but an off-site voicemail system that a phone company offers. I’ve gone to general practitioners’ offices and see that they are practicing very modern medicine, in a very medieval environment. We want to get them an access point that is secure and easy to use, because once each of the computers is connected, they don’t have to sign on every time. It’s highly secure and we can see everything from the cloud and support them remotely. What are the advantages and disadvantages of using this service? What challenges did you face in implementation or sales of this service?

Smith: Anything that makes an MSP’s job easier while maintaining or raising the value to our clients seems like a no-brainer to me. If you could have a unified solution where you were able to monitor and administrate from a single Web interface from wherever you are, I would be hard-pressed to find an issue with why someone wouldn’t want that.

The disadvantages would be just like anything in a cloud -- you’re putting your service in the hands of a vendor. Let’s say, you have an outage, while the APs will still function, you won’t really be able to administrate them. All the power is in the cloud for controlling a device. You’re creating a bit of a reliance on a vendor. So, for that additional functionality, you’re taking a bit of a risk, which comes with any technology. We try to mitigate that risk as much as possible. Also, where the service is now, we are kind of tied into the D-link AP that they have rolled out right now. They are looking at additional ones, but if you are looking into rolling us out, your hardware choices are quite limited because their software has to tie in so directly. 

We kind of learned the hard way that we need to wrap this up into a bow and show them the benefits to these products and services. Our new sales rep, Carmen, has taught us how to speak human a bit better when it comes to business and a lot of these new services we are bringing online. Once we can have a meeting of the minds in the business land with some clients and potential clients, that light bulb goes off for them, and they say, ‘Why didn’t you say so?’ What is your sales/business model? Do you charge for implementation and then an ongoing management service subscription rate?

Smith: It’s a case-by-case basis, but for the most part, we go in initially and do a basic assessment to see how to get them up to ground level. Some practices will have a really old access point that doesn’t support the latest encryption or they won’t have a firewall in place, or they’ll just need a lot of help. We may also do an initial project, to get them up to what we call a business grade network. From there, we would go into offering them a managed services solution, to where we become their virtual IT department, where we manage all aspects of technology. So we would take care of the phone call if there is a problem with a third party, problem with a printer, etc. We try to take the headache of IT off their shoulders, so they focus on their business, not the tools they run their business on top of. A monthly service to manage all their IT, the occasional project, if they want to roll out a new network, etc. -- those are more project based. We meet with them on a quarterly basis to discuss what we did right, what we did wrong, what we want to do next and how we are going to get there. We do a gentle plan every 3 months or so and figure out how to keep things moving forward and support them, and keep their business running smoothly. In terms of partner profit, how does cloud-managed wireless LAN differ from other ways of selling wireless?

Smith: One thing is that there is an annual fee. We get a discount on the APs, and if we bring in new hardware, assuming this is a project, there is markup/margin on the hardware, but there is also the annual service cost. A lot of times we’ll bundle in the cost of the portal or cloud management into the managed services contract. It’s mostly invisible. We’ll say it’s going to be X dollars for these APs, and X dollars monthly for us to manage your technology.

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