WLAN Survey Says Give Us Better Management

I surveyed 181 WLAN operators in higher education to get their input on WLAN management platforms and other issues. The results show respondents feel locked in to vendor systems that leave them wanting more.

December 20, 2012

4 Min Read
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I often wonder if my peers in the WLAN space face the same frustrations as me, so I decided to ask. I set up an online survey and reached out to wireless colleagues in higher education. The goal was to gauge their satisfaction with WLAN vendors' management systems. I contacted potential respondents via a couple of active mailing lists used by IT professionals who support colleges and universities around the world. I got 181 responses to 27 questions. While I don't consider my poll to be scientific, I do find value in the results, some of which I share below.

I learned several things from the survey. First, my own 3,500-plus wireless environment at Syracuse University, and the approximately 16,000 peak concurrent wireless clients we see on a typical day, puts me in the top 11% of respondents polled for size. I also learned 96% of respondents have controller-based WLAN at their main site (as do I).

While I'm in the majority regarding a controller-based WLAN, I'm in the minority for organizations using cloud-managed wireless at one or more sites, which accounts for just 7% of respondents.

Can't Get Much Satisfaction

One thing I wanted to find out is whether my peers are satisfied with the WLAN management capabilities of their vendors. The takeaway? Vendors have room for improvement. Fifty-five percent say they are satisfied, which isn't bad, but more than a third of respondents (38%) call it a mixed bag--the job gets done, but there are gaps and bugs. Six percent say it's downright terrible.

Of course, vendors don't necessarily have a lot of motivation to address management concerns if their customers can't go to a competitor: 63% of respondents feel they are locked in to their vendor's management system. The fact is there are no real third-party options, so the only alternative for dissatisfied customers is to assemble ICMP and SNMP tools into something that approximates a "management" system.

I also asked respondents for their perceptions of vendor balance between rolling out new features vs. stability and support of the platform. Again, the results were mixed: 56% said they were content with the quality and rate of new feature releases and the stability of the platform. However, 27% said that while new features get rolled out frequently, the platform can be buggy and unreliable. Sixteen percent said their vendors seem more interested in rolling out new features than in providing a stable platform.

802.11ac Plans

The forthcoming availability of products based on the 802.11ac standard has lots of IT professionals reviewing their WLAN options. According to my survey, 36% will either definitely change vendors (4%) or will consider changing WLAN vendors (32%) with the advent of 802.11ac.

Meanwhile, 20% of all respondents currently support multiple WLAN vendors, but the majority of those are migrating to a single-vendor strategy. That makes sense, because keeping more than one large WLAN environment in close quarters can be an RF and management nightmare. At the same time, I'm not the only one who will continue to run with a different vendor at my far-flung sites where the use-case tends to be different in size and scope.

Other results include:

• 81% feel that vendor lock-in pervades the WLAN space due to lack of interoperability among vendors; 49% feel that this sucks.

• 33% of us are not keen on the thought of unified (wireless + wired) management, given lack of confidence in current management systems.

• The overwhelming majority of respondents find fault with the way wireless systems are hyped up in marketing; 17% say they rarely believe any performance claims made by WLAN vendors.

You'll also find perspective on how many hours respondents have lost to dealing with bugs and other defects on both the wireless and management sides of their systems, along with which vendors (by name) are currently being used or have been dropped from consideration. The survey also has data on respondents' general satisfaction with various parts of the vendor companies we use (sales, support, feature request response, and so on).

Curiously, many of the smaller players scored proportionally high in two seemingly disparate categories: "I will never use this vendor again" and "I would consider this vendor." To me, that indicates a high degree of interest in alternatives to the Big Wireless vendors (Cisco and Aruba). At the same time, of those respondents who have tried the likes of Bluesocket or Xirrus, many were not thrilled. My feeling is that the right sales engineer or escalation engineers can make all the difference on the road to satisfaction or angst.

As you digest the results, please remember that the survey is not inclusive of all WLAN customers; it was limited only to respondents in higher education. It's also likely that in some cases, more than one respondent from the same institution replied. It's extremely likely that the exact same questions aimed at 180 corporate WLAN-keepers, integrators or SMB wireless environments would have greatly differing results. (In fact, we'll get to find out--InformationWeek Reports recently conducted a WLAN survey of corporate users, and a report on the results will be available in early 2013.)

As mentioned earlier, I conducted this poll to satisfy my own curiosity about the issues my peer group has to deal with. If you'd like to conduct the same exercise, I recommend Toluna Quick Surveys, which provides an excellent, no-cost online survey and reporting mechanism.

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