Pushing cloud Wi-Fi way beyond basic connectivity
- 16 March, 2016 21:53
While familiar WLAN vendors like Cisco, Aruba and Ruckus are all over the move to cloud-managed Wi-Fi, so too are newer companies looking to make a name for themselves.
Two of these privately-held companies – Cloud4Wi and Relay2 -- have news to share this week:
Headquarters: San Francisco
Funding: $12 million
This company, which spun out of Italian managed solutions/services company WiTech, has since 2013 been offering a services platform for advanced guest Wi-Fi, with an initial focus on large retail and restaurant chains like Prada and Burger King. About 70% of the company’s customers are in Europe as a result of its Italian roots, but Cloud4Wi has set up its headquarters in the United States and expects its fresh round of $8 million in funding to fuel growth in the U.S. and beyond.
Cloud4Wi partners with WLAN hardware companies such as Aerohive, Aruba and Cisco, providing an over-the-top service to their clients, who are looking to better engage customers and gather information on patrons that can be used to target marketing/advertising and improve business operations on local and macro levels. Cloud4Wi's software infrastructure sits on Amazon's cloud, though also can be hosted in customer clouds and on carrier networks.
"I know that Aerohive has been pretty vocal about the partnership as it’s a key part of the retail solution ecosystem that they have curated," says Nolan Greene, research analyst for network infrastructure at IDC, which is readying an updated cloud-managed Wi-Fi market forecast. "Cloud4Wi certainly has some traction."
Via its newly rebranded Volare service, Cloud4Wi provides hardware sensors that augment existing WLAN access points by providing location information that a retailer could use, for example, to measure the number of window shoppers and figure out if stores should be open during different hours. Other examples of using location analytics would be sensing when a shopper is near a certain product and hitting that person up with an instant coupon or measuring the number of shoppers in a store at different times to optimize staffing.
"All of those [established WLAN vendors] have basic guest Wi-Fi. But if you think about the evolution of the industry, those companies historically sell to enterprises where guest Wi-Fi is for visitors in the lobby," says Cloud4Wi President Jeff Abramowitz, who previously sold a Wi-Fi-focused PARC spinout called PowerCloud to Comcast. "When the Wi-Fi moves to a retail store or a restaurant now you have an opportunity to provide a branded sign-in page with social log-in options where you record people's email addresses or take their social information and engage with them based on their demographics or their presence in the store or restaurant."
The savvier that brick-and-mortar retailers get using data from their Wi-Fi networks to make shopping at their locations compelling, the better chance they'll have to compete vs. the Amazons of the world, which already are making a killing off of customer analytics and targeted marketing, Abramowitz says. He envisions a time when physical stores serve more as showcases for products to be ordered and delivered via online means.
If all this sounds kind of creepy, consider that the programs are universally opt-in, according to Abramowitz, whose company provides its clients with customizable privacy statements but leaves it up to those clients to work up their own policies. "Increasingly, shoppers are willing [to opt in] to get better deals and access to information in exchange for having the store know a little more about them," he contends. Cloud4Wi itself gathers only anonymized data that it can use to better design its services (for example, it has learned that 80% of shoppers in Europe use
social media accounts to log in to retailer/restaurant Wi-Fi networks and in U.S. it is almost flipped, with most preferring to share email addresses instead).
The company this week is announcing upgraded management tools for IT as well as better mobile app support, including technology that would enable a brand to integrate its app with location-sensitive beacon technology. Cloud4Wi will also deliver better application integration, so that data collected via Cloud4Wi services could work with third-party CRM and other apps.
The vendor charges enterprises $240 per year per access point or $480 for three years. Abramowitz cited one restaurant in Toronto -- Lone Star Texas Grill -- that got a return on its investment in just a few months by collecting thousands of valuable email addresses.
While Cloud4Wi is squarely focused on the enterprise, it will broaden its portfolio down the line to offer products that carriers can use to target SMBs with similar services.
Headquarters: Milpitas, Calif.
This privately-held firm started off a few years back targeting the enterprise, and while its vision for a cloud-based WLAN platform with access points hosting applications and various services at the network edge is essentially the same, Relay2 has reworked its go-to-market strategy to focus on systems integrators and service providers. Those outfits largely serve SMBs, such as retailers, elder care and hospitality concerns, looking to exploit Wi-Fi via customized applications.
Relay2 this week is announcing a more powerful family of access points, dubbed the RA200 and supporting the latest technologies such as MIMO and 802.11ac. Systems integrators would spread APs across a customer’s space and allow management of them via a web-based interface into cloud-hosted WLAN controllers. Relay2 runs data centers in Santa Clara and Shanghai, and is readying a third center in Japan, where it hopes to cash in on that country’s increased investment in wireless and the cloud to support the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics.
The company’s platform currently works only with its own APs, which boast up to a 4-core CPU and 128GB of solid-state storage and feature built-in caching, web server, deep packet inspection and other services. The access points also house middleware that provides a containerized platform to support a range of applications from advanced security to customer engagement to Internet of Things. “We’re pushing the intelligence out to the edge of the network,” says Keith Sinclair, director of marketing and strategy.
Advances in Wi-Fi application services like this could actually help organizations like hotel chains get away from blocking users' individual WiFi hotspot devices as a way to force them to buy hotel or convention center Internet access, and come up with creative ways to entice guests to want to use the venue's WiFi network.
Relay2 is tight-lipped about customer wins, though did issue a press release last year to tout a big Chinese phone retail chain called DPhone installing the cloud Wi-Fi platform across more than 500 stores. CEO Greg Daily, leaning on Relay2’s status as a private company, declined to say what the company’s largest installation is.
Neither was the company revealing pricing, though says it is competitive with other hardware vendors, and that customers would buy both APs and a cloud subscription. Greenfield environments, rather than organizations with existing Wi-Fi hardware in place, has been fertile territory for Relay2, Sinclair says.