Cisco Switzerland Technology Blog

The evolution of Cisco Wireless Licensing

- Tuesday, 24 November 2015 09:12 CET

18 years went by since IEEE released the first WLAN standard 802.11. It offered only meek performance and didn’t become a big hit.
The following standard, IEEE 802.11b, started to change that and especially with one further evolution, IEEE 802.11g, WLANs started to become popular.

Customers started to deploy more and more WLAN-AccessPoints and at some time they realized – the management of these AccessPoints became a hassle.

For this reasons, we at Cisco over 10 years ago started to develop WLAN-Controllers, which would relieve the Network-Engineers from some configuration and operational tasks around WLANs. Now you didn’t need to be an extremely skilled Radio-Frequency-Expert anymore to deploy and operate an enterprise-scale WLAN.

But back in 2005 many customers shied away from purchasing WLAN-Controllers, because it was not very easy to select the right one.

In this blog I give a personal view into how Controller-Licensing has changed over time.
Also the phases I mention are not official Cisco-Terminology, but should help you identify the various steps we have taken.

Phase 1: HW-based WLAN-Controller capacity


Cisco 4400 Series WLAN Controllers

Many readers will remember the Cisco 4400 Series Wireless LAN Controller – a few of them might still installed and working in some customer networks till today.
But where was the big challenge I mentioned above?
What some people might have forgotten, these Controllers were able to manage AccessPoint solely based on the Hardware within a specific model. Models with capacity to manage 12, 25, 50 or 100 AccessPoints existed.

Wireless was growing like crazy at that time and knowing this, customers actually had two choices:

a) Buy a bigger WLAN-Controller than currently needed
Advantage: In case the WLAN-Installation would indeed grow, the customer would have enough “headroom” on the controller to manage these additional AccessPoints as well.
Disadvantage: The customer would need to invest upfront into some bigger WLAN-Controller-Hardware, without guarantee if he will ever need it.

b) Buy just what you need, but risk to not be able to manage your network in future
Advantage: The customer just invested into a WLAN-Controller required for his current needs
Disadvantage: If the WLAN would grow indeed, the WLAN-Controller would become quickly to small – customer would need to start stacking WLAN-Controllers on top of each other or they would need to replaced them with bigger variants prematurely in their lifecycle – both options would cause higher costs overall.

Phase 2: WLAN-Controller capacity and functionality based on Licenses


Cisco 5508 Series WLAN Controller


With the introduction of the next WLAN-Controller Architecture we reacted on this issue.
Now, the customer could buy WLAN-Controller-Hardware, which would allow him to manage quite big numbers of AccessPoint. The Cisco 5508 Series Wireless LAN Controller for example would scale to manage up to 500 AccessPoints – however, the customer doesn’t need to buy this capacity upfront. Instead the customer could buy Licenses to enable this AP-Management according to his needs.

Now Customers didn’t need to buy too big controllers nor were they in big risk to have bought too small controllers.
Additionally we also added a second type of license – the “Plus”-License – many people (even within Cisco) have forgotten about the “Plus”-License meanwhile.

The idea of the “Plus”-Licenses was pretty simple:
The WLAN-Controller was able to perform functions might not every customer would need.
So only those customers which required them, should be able to get them by paying the “Plus”-Licenses.
Customers without need for this functionality would get away without the “Plus”-License and would save some money.

Phase 3: WLAN-Controller with Capacity-Licenses only

While the idea of the “Plus”-License was good on paper , Customers and Cisco Partners didn’t really like it.
Nearly everybody was interested in at least one feature, which was part of the “Plus”-License … so having everyone buying an additional license was not what the original idea was about.
As a result, the “Plus”-License got dropped and all features of the WLAN-Controller were available to all customers – Customers now just need a simple license for the AP and everything the WLAN-Controller can do for them will also be available to them.

Phase 4: Right-to-Use Licensing


Cisco 8510 Series WLAN Controller


The WLAN-Controllers with Capacity-Licenses were (and still are) a great success. It really makes life for a customer easier not requiring to think about what feature you need or should I buy now the smaller or the bigger box. We were however not yet at the end of our journey.
Licensing WLAN-Controllers still required some thoughts about build-in Licenses, which have been bound to the WLAN-Controller Hardware (we call them Base-Licenses) and the Adder-Licenses, which required a licensing-file to enable them on the device.New installations could be easily done by ordering the right WLAN-Controllers and the right licenses.
However special attention and action was required, when changing the setup or replacing (RMA) Controllers.

On platforms that are able to do it, as a next step we enabled the RTU-Licensing. (RTU = Right-To-Use).
This does not require a Licensing-File for the Adder-Licenses anymore and allow the enabling of the AP-Licenses via simple CLI-Commands.
We trust our customers and partners that they will only enable, what they really bought – in exchange the Adder-Licenses on the WLAN-Controllers are much easier to handle.

Phase 5: HA-Licensing

Meanwhile however Wireless-LANs became a lot more business-critical for a lot more customers. And to accommodate that, we would change our licensing again.
Initially each WLAN-Controllers had to be licensed for the Peak-Amount of AccessPoint it would be managing. If you had redundant setups that meant, you would have 2 controllers both with Licenses to cover all your APs.
In the “early days” many customers didn’t require that as their Wireless-LAN was not business-critical and if the controller would fail (which happened actually quite rarely), the impact wouldn’t be that big. However, WLANs grew not only in size but also in importance and no matter how seldom a controller fails – if the WLAN has to work, you have to have a redundant setup. And for obvious reasons this “double-licensing” was questioned by customers and partners.

As a reaction the following Licensing was introduced at the same time as the new and improved HA-Functionality and made licensing for redundant setups much simpler.
Now the Standby-Controller did not require to be licensed at all anymore – if the primary WLAN-Controller was licensed the Standby just allowed the same number of AccessPoints in  case of a failure.

Important note at this point:
Many people think about this only in relation with the new HA-Functionality introduced at the same time – we call it SSO-Redundancy (SSO = Stateful-Switch-Over).
However, also Classic N+1 Redundancy Setups can benefit from this changed licensing-model … the only requirement there: the unlicensed controller really needs to be standby only.

Phase 6: The ability to move Licenses across WLAN-Controllers


Cisco 5520 Series WLAN Controller

With our newest generation of WLAN-Controllers we could now also realize another change in the Licensing-Model.
The Cisco 5520 Series Wireless LAN Controller and the Cisco 8540 Series Wireless LAN Controllers can now exchange licenses between each other. They are not only RTU, they are officially allowed to be moved from one Platform to the other. This is clearly different than on any older product, which did not allow this.
And to make things really easier, we also did leave away the Base-Licenses completely – everything is just RTU-Adder-Licenses now.

This new Licensing-Model gives customers much more flexibility for their future WLAN-Deployments.
You don’t need to consider anymore Base- and Adder-Licenses, PAK-Files and License-Files, Controller-Types, etc.
The new HW-Platforms make it possible!

Phase 7: Changing the ordering experience

Actually more or less at the same time we allowed licenses to be moved between CT5520 and CT8540 we also introduced a new way of ordering Cisco-Gear.
CiscoONE eliminates a lot of the complexity, when ordering Cisco Equipment – and if ordering WLAN-Controllers the AccessPoints-Licenses are part of this simplifications.

It’s not the intention of this blog-entry to give you a detailed overview about CiscoONE, but think about this:
With CiscoONE you’re not only getting the AP-Licenses, you’re getting Licenses for the Mobility Services Engine, for the Identity Services Engine as well as for Prime Infrastructure LifeCycle and Assurance. And this licenses are now completely separated from the Hardware – so you can move it at your will.

Depending on your HW-Platform might need the help of Cisco-Licensing to move the license – but you can do it.


You can see, we as Cisco are in a continuous process of improving our WLAN-Solution – not only, but also our licensing structure.
Over time we adapted to what technology made possible and what our customers requested

What will the future bring?
The next phase will launch pretty soon and further improve your licensing-experience with Cisco WLAN Gear.


Phase 8: A new way to manage your Licenses

On platforms able to do so, the AireOS 8.2 Release will enable the WLAN-Controllers to work with the Smart-Licensing-Accounts.
So, on one end customers load the licenses you purchased into this portal; on the other end the infrastructure will report back to the portal how many licenses are actually used.

On the portal page the customer can now easily see, how many licenses are used, how many he bought and if there is might a shortage in licenses.
If so, the portal will not block anything – but it will tell you, that you probably should buy some additional licenses to correct the shortage.

Again we trust our customers and partners to do the right thing?

The supported WLAN-Controller platforms for Smart-Licensing-Accounts will be:
– CT5520 and CT8540
– Virtual WLAN Controller



Looking back we see that we have changed our WLAN-Licensing a lot since the first days.
Customers can today benefit from much more functionality without needing additional licenses and greater flexibility how to use the licenses than ever before!

So, have we reached the end of our journey by now?
I don’t know … depending on Customer- and Market-Requirements as well as technological advances I expect that we at Cisco will continue to evolve our WLAN-Offerings!

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