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What is a WLAN Controller?

By Mike Howells
Updated May 16, 2024
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A wireless local-area-network (WLAN) controller is an electronic device that manages groups of wireless network access points that all derive from the same data connection. They are used in places like airports, office buildings, and shopping centers where wireless internet is provided over a large area. Specifically, a WLAN controller is used to administer features like security, voice, and location services.

With the influx in devices capable of utilizing a wireless network, providing wireless access is rapidly becoming a necessity, as opposed to a luxury, for business to serve their clients. The benefit of offering WLAN over a large area is to provide mobile internet access for a large potential number of users with varying levels of access. Many businesses choose to offer such mobility to increase productivity. In places like airports and malls, guest access can be offered freely or for a small fee for a limited amount of time.

A WLAN controller makes it possible to manage such networks where either a single wireless router or multiple access points would be insufficient or overwhelmed. Traditionally, if a place like an airport chose to offer wireless access, it would be set up with as many autonomous access points installed as required to provide the requisite coverage. Each node, as they are known, would have to be set up independently with the correct settings for guest access, bandwidth, and security limitations.

There are a number of disadvantages inherent in this kind of ad hoc setup, which are generally solved by incorporating a WLAN controller. The first relates to the concept of load balancing. If one particular node experiences unusually heavy traffic, it may slow down as the access point reaches its maximum throughout. A WLAN controller is capable of countering this by distributing load through all available nodes.

Use of a WLAN controller also means that security policy, encryption, and other settings only need to be set up once in a centralized location. This eliminates the need to configure each access point individually, which in turn greatly simplifies and enhances the scalability of a growing wireless network. A WLAN-controlled network can also be administered more easily by fewer technicians, reducing personnel costs.

A network that incorporates a WLAN controller can also offer seamless connectivity when moving between individual nodes. Such freedom is something not possible when each access point is configured separately. For users connected through a mobile phone or similar device, this can be hugely beneficial.

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