1. Determine Your WLAN Requirements. Shopping for a new WLAN system begins by knowing what you really need and want. Vendor marketing can quickly become overwhelming if you’re unprepared, and if you’re not careful, you can lose sight of your requirements and get dazzled by expensive options that don’t necessarily fit your true needs.
You certainly want flexibility in your new WLAN system, but you have to start off with something that grounds the discussion. As a start, it might be: “We need 802.11ac, an 802.1x-based secure WLAN with support for all major EAP types and hooks to our Active Directory environment, the ability to accommodate self-sponsored guests with social media logins, location tracking, simple rogue detection with variable thresholds before alerting, and the capability to manage the system with no additional physical servers.”
If you do it right, a simple paragraph like that will morph into a full page or better, bulleted specifics that make their way into an RFP.
If you’re not comfortable creating your own RFP, find some from colleagues or even online to work from, and tailor the final version to your own specific requirements. Even small companies will benefit from clearly defining what they need and want. Use the RFP as tool to keep you on track, and make sure it accurately captures your greatest needs.
2. Size Up Your Environment The size of your environment is measured in a number of ways when it comes to Wi-Fi. Square footage and the make-up of your facility matter (you generally need more access points for larger spaces), but so does the number of client devices (dense environments have their own requirements). Also, the size of your support staff and the number of locations help define your requirements. Some WLAN systems take a small army to keep up, others are designed for organizations with limited IT staff and distant branches to support.
3. Don’t Get Fooled By Marketing Fluff. WLAN marketing can be exhausting. Every vendor claims to have the best access points, and has lots of tests to back up its claims. The bluster about APs aside, figuring out the TCO of a WLAN system requires asking some questions. How buggy is it? How frequent are updates? Does it take another skilled FTE just to keep the management server up and running? If I want to add features, will I be nickel and dimed to death with license costs?
Even if you have good RFP responses, you’ll want to look into the un-pretty side of any system you’re contemplating to find out its true cost.
4. Understand New WLAN Features. WLAN product sets have a range of features that go far beyond providing simple client access. Some will be included as standard, others are at additional cost. Options to pay attention to include spectrum analysis, application visibility and control, guest access, device on-boarding, and client posture checking.
Rule of thumb: Don’t pay for what you really don’t need, but make sure you understand what you’re passing on. And if the vendor can’t split off the parts you don’t want, you’ll have to bite the bullet or move on to a different vendor.
5. Account For Wires. Whether you opt for new 802.11ac or upgrade an old a/g environment to 11n, the budget needs to allow for whatever cabling and pathway goes with new access points. This is where sticker shock is fairly common -- nothing is cheap anymore, and wiring is an investment in itself. Resist the lure of over-meshing the WLAN to save on wiring; mesh (APs wirelessly backhauling to each other) cuts down on system performance and can be less predictable. I use the occasional mesh AP where I can’t get cabling, but very sparingly.
[Read why you might want to consider other vendors with the arrival of certified 802.11ac products in "802.11ac: Time To Change Vendors?"]
It may also be time to upgrade switches, especially if the new APs need more PoE than your current switches can deliver. At the same time, if you’re not going to use all the features that come with high-end switches, make sure you're not overbuying what often amounts to big, managed multi-port PoE bricks. Also, don’t forget the UPS that each switch should be connected to, and your ISP connections. Nothing undercuts a good Wi-Fi network like an undersized pipe out to the world.
6. Check Reference Accounts. It's important to check out reference accounts for WLAN vendors, as well as integrators or managed service providers you may opt to use as part of the implementation. Try to find accounts outside of the ones the vendor has hand-picked. You don’t want to be the first (or second) project for a new vendor or “wireless pro” to cut his or her teeth on.
7. Don't Discount Cloud Wi-Fi. I’m not endorsing cloud-managed WLAN over traditional Wi-Fi, however it shouldn't be dismissed. Cloud WLAN management services are becoming plentiful, and vendors such as Meraki (Cisco) and Aerohive are fairly mature as cloud Wi-Fi providers with respectable customer bases. Other vendors are just getting started with cloud Wi-Fi; again, do your homework.
Thankfully, it’s a buyer’s market for wireless networking right now. Shop smart, follow my advice, and good luck.
[Get practical advice on essential components of a mobility and wireless strategy in Lee Badman's session, "Building The Next Generation Mobile Enterprise" at Interop Las Vegas March 31-April 4. Register today!]