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Better, Faster WiFi In 7 Steps

  • Wireless has always been about getting users connected, and that hasn’t changed as we look at the WiFi networks coming our way over the next few years. But the underlying story is becoming huge on a scale none of us wireless architects could have imagined when we were installing 802.11b networks.  

    Back then, design mattered but was certainly easier in retrospect. As 802.11ac Wave 2 casts its shadow over the wireless landscape, we’re at a place where the WLAN means far more than it ever did before. Business WiFi networks are only gaining in importance as enterprises continue to embrace -- and rely on --  the advantages that WLANs provide. At the same time, more robust wireless networking comes with increased complexity and a raft of concerns to consider to get it built, and to keep it running at maximum performance.

    Networks are first and foremost about connecting devices and using applications. As more device types and applications find their ways into the wireless space, the quality of network design becomes paramount. The trend towards more and smaller high-bandwidth cells to accommodate increased device counts is fast becoming a religion in the enterprise. As 802.11ac Wave 1 gives way to Wave 2, and existing 11n environments transition to the highest performance possible with the latest standard, it’s worth noting that successful WiFi design doesn’t just simply happen when lots of APs and throngs of client devices are involved.

    The WiFi environment has to be built well for everything that it will be obviously used for, and to allow for the unpredictable trickle of new client types and AP evolution as the WLAN stakes continue to rise. Cut corners or make poor choices along the way, and that top-end 802.11ac Wave 2 network you’re planning on building will certainly disappoint as you layer more services on a faulty foundation. 

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  • Understand the requirements

    The best wireless networks are designed (or evolved) by skilled staff using good tools. Successful WLAN design results from properly analyzing a given environments requirements, and allowing for the unknown that comes with a rapidly changing client landscape thats influenced by fuzzy factors like the Internet of Things (IoT) and BYOD. Pulling good designs out of sometimes murky requirements is as much art as it is skill at times, but getting it right is a must. Only then can the proper hardware set and access point placement be decided on, and designs validated to verify enterprise objectives are met.

    Your organizational strengths and makeup should have a bearing on the WLAN solution you build. There will be system upkeep and updates, client troubleshooting, and reporting needed as common elements of any and every wireless solution. This all can be done with in-house staff or may require the help of a VAR, or some combination of both. Before you commit to the next version of your WiFi environment, a clear definition of your own requirements is all that will get you through the maze of decisions that go with building a next-generation wireless network.

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  • Start with solid design

    For basic WLAN design, start with an approach that guarantees uniformity. I use Ciscos VoIP for WLAN basic guidelines, and Ekahaus Site Survey program as my design foundation. Aim for wall-to-wall signal strength and quality in 5 GHz as a baseline, then allow for client density based on expected users and device counts with consideration for the applications theyll be running. Then add in growth to 25%. Im greatly simplifying the process, but this is where solid design starts. If youre not up to doing it in-house, invest in an experienced design partner.

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  • Size matters

    Though all WiFi environments share the goal of providing good connectivity for whatever services are used on the network, life gets more complicated for big WLANs of different sizes. A moderately sized environment made up of several dozen APs and a few hundred clients has different operational constraints than one with just an AP or two, or another with thousands of access points and hundreds of thousands of client devices. Smaller wireless environments are typically able to recover from poor system choices or system defects easier than their bigger counterparts when rework is required.

    At system build time, switch port counts, PoE budgets, UPS strategy, and even how the number of cables run to each 11ac AP all have to be considered in system buildout. These items may seem pedestrian, but are critical when building for a large campus.

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  • Choose the right system

    WiFi has to work well before it can support business operations, but organizations also have to live with the back-end beasts they create even as clients blissfully connect at the network edge. The dollars that will continue to be poured into WLAN raise questions about TCO and solution choices that range far beyond the fundamental goal of delivering reliable access. The day-to-day of WLAN ownership has to be as right as the reliability of client access. To this end, there are important choices to be made that will determine system success over time.

    For example, do you want to be in the server business for NMS upkeep, or would you rather this be offloaded to the cloud? Are the gazillions of features that controller-based WLAN promises actually desired, or would you rather forgo the administrative burden of controllers in favor of cloud-managed APs and a streamlined range of system capabilities?

    Once you decide on these important strategic basics, evaluation is in order before purchase to ensure that you have the right features, troubleshooting capabilities, and management options for your own needs.

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  • Think about integration

    Beyond coverage design and basic system build, any new WLAN has to be scrutinized for how it integrates with the rest of the enterprise. Seldom is WiFi access the end of the story here, and increasingly we find that once-separate network functions have become options for the basic WLAN system with tight integrations that can reshape large parts of your network infrastructure before its over.

    For example, many of us have run stand-alone RADIUS environments, traffic shaping appliances, enterprise firewalls, and stand-alone guest user services. All of these and more have become integrated components in WiFi systems both big and small. Im at a point in my own environment where Im moving traffic shaping duties away from the likes of Packeteer and Palo Alto Networks and onto my Cisco wireless controllers.

    I have branch locations where guest access that used to come all the way to the main network takes place locally on access points managed in the cloud. And Aruba Networks ClearPass suite is a NAC+ solution with onboarding, guest access, and other option-licensed features that can retire a rack full of legacy functions for those Aruba customers who opt to go that route. Youll notice that all of these examples are beyond the actual WiFi access part of the wireless network environment, but have the potential to redefine a number of critical network functions.

    Keep in mind that as you choose the options needed to round out your WLAN, youre not necessarily bound to the same vendor that supplies your APs or cloud management service. Look for best-of-breed onboarding and RADIUS services, for example, even if its not as convenient with sticking with a single vendor.

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  • Consider social and political implications

    WiFis development over the last decade or so has been quite unlike Ethernets. Ethernet jumps forward in discrete bandwidth steps. Even if you dont understand it at the CCIE level, its easy to grasp that fiber and copper connect components at a given speed. Ethernet is non-controversial, and not real difficult to design. The same VoIP that works well on standard Gigabit Ethernet links demands a meticulous WiFi design that still has a certain fragility because it can be interfered with.  

    At times, WiFi is the stuff of politics and industrial soap operas. From the Marriott lawsuit and Globalstar TLPS issues to the ethics of social WiFi, todays WLAN has endless dimensions and odd hooks to other technical story lines. Those of us in the business of enterprise WLAN have to juggle technical expertise with an awareness of civics and the political climate as it impacts RF spectrum and as we look toward building our newest networks.

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  • Plan for the future

    We have the Internet of Things knocking on the door, a fairly recent fascination with location services using both WiFi and Bluetooth, and a rising tide of oddball consumer-quality devices that want to use our WiFi networks even though they arent put together for enterprise use. SDN wants a role in the WLAN, and each one of us will have to decide when its time to open that door. Were engineers, diplomats, baby-sitters, negotiators, apologists, and mystics all rolled into one, and if we dont recognize and embrace that, our new wireless networks suffer for it.

    Going forward, getting WLAN design right will take better skills, tools, product sets, and client devices. But the most important building blocks for our new wireless network are good minds that both understand the complexities in play and can roll with the next WiFi-related development thats always lurking right around the corner.

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