For most of us, our in-office and in-home connectivity experience usually consists of us connecting to a wireless network, most often Wi-Fi of some flavor. Offices, coffee shops, our home wireless networks…these are the connections that we often don’t even think about on a daily basis; we just connect and take our wireless mobility for granted. However, for IT organizations exploring new enterprise network design options, in many cases, the opposite is true. They are forced to think of wired Ethernet as a foundation, with Wi-Fi and other mobility technologies as secondary.
Even today, in an era of multiple wireless technologies, most IT staff are taught that the wired network comes first, with wireless technologies used to extend connectivity for increased flexibility. However, the proliferation of advanced Wi-Fi, private networks, 5G, and more means that IT can flip this concept and build wireless networks first and wired networks only where needed. This results in incredible savings - both OPEX and CAPEX - as well as new levels of productivity and flexibility for the “work anywhere” crowd.
What is Wireless First?
First, let’s define what we mean by a “wireless first” network design. In this design methodology, it is assumed that the vast majority of users and end devices will connect to the network primarily using wireless, be it Wi-Fi or cellular. As a result, IT can build the wired network specifically to maximize wireless coverage and to support areas where wireless coverage may be limited due to physical limitations related to range, environment, etc.
That means wired connectivity is going to be limited to data centers and aggregation points where your WLAN controllers may be deployed to control the array of wireless access points (APs) you deploy instead of wired connections. Wired connections will realistically be limited to use cases that require extremely large amounts of dedicated bandwidth at specific performance levels. Data transfer for video applications or MRI imaging data are two good examples.
The Benefits of a Wireless-First Enterprise Network Design Approach
A wireless first network clearly gives IT far more flexibility in design, but also in switching up the configurations of an enterprise network on an as-needed basis. This flexibility obviously extends to end users as well since staff can easily move throughout their campus connected via their phones, tablets, and laptops. This approach delivers greater productivity for staff by allowing them to focus on their work and not consuming time figuring out how to connect to the network or being tied to a single location.
Speed of installation and ongoing management
Deploying APs as opposed to installing a fully wired network is a night-and-day proposition in terms of speed. Wireless networks can be deployed in a matter of days or even hours, while wired networks take weeks at a minimum.
Building a wired network is expensive. On the other hand, a wireless network is, overall, a cheaper solution than a wired one with regards to both installing and upgrading the network. Upgrading a wireless network is as simple as buying new equipment and replacing the modems, routers, switches, and access points. However, upgrading a wired network involves tearing up existing wired cables, relaying them, and creating new wired points, all of which cost more money than a wireless network.
Things to Consider for Wireless-First Design
Once IT has decided to build a wireless first approach to its enterprise network, there are new considerations that come into play.
Understanding Wireless Performance
In building a wireless-first network, IT needs to understand the different performance indicators for different mobile technologies. Wi-Fi has different Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) than LTE, and 5G has different KPIs than LTE – so knowing what the different KPIs are for the different technologies is going to be important. Knowing how to assess the performance of a wireless network and having the right tools to simulate how they will eliminate the risk of downtime and productivity losses.
Choose the Right Tool for the Job
Understanding the business case for your mobility choices will help to determine how the network is designed. Are coverage and range important? Perhaps outdoor connectivity is key, such as a port or municipal venue. In this case, LTE or 5G would be more appropriate than Wi-Fi. Is compatibility with the broadest set of devices important? Wi-Fi is the best choice. What about publicly managed services or perhaps a private network to ensure more security? These are the questions that must be answered to ensure your success.
Surveying and Designing a Wireless-First Network
Regardless of your tools, the core to your success is proper survey and design. A great survey will enable you to understand the physical requirements and what type of technology may be best suited to deploy for the best results. This includes obtaining a facility diagram but also making a detailed onsite physical assessment. This onsite survey will enable you to assess existing network infrastructure, identify coverage areas, etc.
A quality survey and design tool should enable you to accurately model the environment you’re designing for. In some cases, this may be inside a singular building; in other cases, this may be a campus-like environment consisting of both indoor and outdoor modeling. The tool you use should also be able to leverage this model to then enable you to simulate the performance of the different technologies you are layering into your wireless infrastructure so you can better decide which technology to use where and how they will work together to provide the desired end-user experience.
For campus environments, it should be able to tell you the impact of your outdoor wireless performance on your indoor performance so you can ensure seamless coverage from building to building and all points in between. By accurately simulating the performance of the network, you will also be able to optimize the design not only from a performance perspective but also from a cost perspective and be confident the network you’re designing is the network you need.
By using software to accurately predict the network, you will understand which wireless technology will work best in a given location, but you will also have confidence the network that you design, install, and deploy will work as simulated and eliminate costly post-installation troubleshooting and re-design work.
Given these significant benefits, it's clear that wireless networking has evolved to the point that it takes priority over wired networks, with the latter serving the former rather than the other way around. As more and more new wireless technologies and models come to be more commonplace, this methodology will gain even greater importance. With Wi-Fi 7 and soon 6G coming to bring new capabilities - and new complexities - for all of us to manage, the time to reorganize the enterprise as “wireless-first” is right now.
Vladan Jevremovic is senior research director at iBwave.