802.11ac – Is it worth the investment? Part 1 of 2.

Why would you invest in 802.11ac technology?

It’s a good question, and a common one.  For most businesses to invest in 11ac (IEEE 802.11ac), the business value of the technology needs to be measured.  This can be hard.  To assist us, it is worthwhile to set a baseline. Before we look at that however, just what is 802.11ac?

In a nutshell, it is the latest technology advancement in the IEEE standard for Wi-Fi performance or speed. Before this, there was [IEEE 802.11] a,b,g and n.  Each amendment progressively supplies faster, more efficient service to Wi-Fi clients and consequently better performance for all over a wireless medium.  From a business standpoint, you may ask how faster Wi-Fi helps your productivity?  I will attempt to answer that below.

Back to the baseline.  The baseline can be measured in two parts.

  • First, we can look at which stage of evolution your business Wi-Fi is at.
  • Second, we note which benefits 11ac can bring to an organisation’s network and what it promises in the future.

With the first part, your business may be one of three places right now:

  1. There is no existing wireless solution but there is a new business need that requires it.
  2. The business has an existing Wi-Fi installation that is over three years old and due for an upgrade. Or it is opening a new site with no Wi-Fi and is considering deploying the latest Wireless Access Points there.
  3. The business needs cutting edge technology.  It has a relatively recent installation of 802.11n and is looking to take advantage of the latest Wi-Fi enhancements in 11ac.

The second part of the baseline is understanding that 11ac technology is essentially coming in two waves.  Wave 1, the 11ac that we can buy today, provides at least a 30% speed increase over 802.11n, sometimes even 150% – but this comes with lots of caveats – more on that later. Wave 2, where the promise of the real spectacular is (at least to Wi-Fi professionals like myself), are anticipated to be released by some enterprise wireless manufacturers sometime in 2015.

Why is the speed increase important?  More throughput usually equals higher productivity.  Users can do their work faster if they are not waiting to “use” the network.  Unlike the dedicated network cable connected to your laptop with all that bandwidth just for you, wireless is a shared medium; where only one device can talk at one time and where all devices connected to the same Wi-Fi Access Point queue up, to send and receive traffic on it.  The speed increase means that devices with faster technology use the shared medium for less time to send the same amount of data.  Basically, you’re on and off faster which means a quicker performance for everyone.

So faster speed = better productivity.  But to a business, it must examine the material benefit: if my Wi-Fi transfers data say, 50% faster than before, does that provide any real value?  If I sit at my desk sending emails, preparing documents and browsing the web, is this network performance increase going to equate to markedly improved productivity on my part?  Perhaps not.  If the Wi-Fi is doing a lot of file transfers, video/voice or other downloads, then yes. I believe it is something that only each organisation can calculate for themselves.

It all ties back to the “Should I invest” question: the answer is entirely dependent upon where your business is at in the adoption of wireless.  I will talk about this in Part 2.



Are you using protection?

I don’t think anybody wants an infection.  The consequences are hard to clean up, it may be expensive to fix and public knowledge of the fact will damage your image.

Remember when the only protection you needed (in the network) was a firewall because the only access to your internal network was the cabled connection from outside the building? Those were the days.

Wi-Fi has brought us welcome flexibility at work.  However, wireless signals from your network can extend outside the walls of your building meaning your network is outside the building.  If that data is important, we should protect it. An attacker can intercept and capture these wireless signals for analysis and have specialised software run attacks against the data looking for weaknesses in order to gain network access or decrypt the data.

What are the business risks?

  1. Data Theft/Loss/Corruption due to hackers accessing internal data.
  2. Denial of Service, where the ability to work over Wi-Fi is compromised.
  3. External brand damage – following public knowledge of data theft.
  4. Reputational Risk – amongst business partners, suppliers…

What is weak security?

Well, WEP has been around the longest and it is basically an open gate so please don’t use that.  WPA-Personal and WPA2-Personal are what most of us use at home these days and it consists of using the one shared Wi-Fi password for the network.  Utilised by everyone.  If used in business, this poses opportunities for a determined hacker who can try to reverse-engineer or gain the static password through social engineering.  Once the password is obtained, the business risks identified above are all possible.

What is strong security?

Strong network security relies on protocols that secure your data using authorised, authenticated network access and dynamic (not static) encryption of your data over the network.  These protocols are an industry standard and are likely built into the devices already present on your network.  Leverage this built-in security.  Its Wi-Fi Alliance name is ‘WPA2-Enterprise’ and it is often more secure than your wired LAN.

The first step to securing your data is…

Maintain the paranoia.  Worry enough about the consequences of a security breach and a plan for remedial action usually follows.

An audit is a good start.  A focused security review of your networks by internal or external specialists.  It may also uncover unknown (and undesired) equipment or operations.

In addition, the creation of a living corporate policy document that outlines the security policy of the company is recommended.  One that is updated as technology changes and new threats are identified.  A clear document that protects a company from it’s own staff making errors of judgement and one that defines procedures for dealing with “events”.

We know that installing security measures after the fact is common, but often its too late to repair the damage or to keep your reputation i.e. your brand, intact.  Let’s encourage prevention.  Check your WiFi now and stay safe.

The importance of site surveys

Before and after any wireless network installation, one or more wireless site surveys will prove valuable.

Site surveys provide certainty and reduce risk before any Wi-Fi implementation.  They usually uncover the gotchas before its too late and contribute important information towards planning and deployment.

In return, the business gets accuracy and assurance.  Professional site surveys audit a location’s Radio Frequency (RF) environment in order to determine the wireless resources necessary for the required level of Wi-Fi service and performance.  Namely, how much and what types of equipment and where best to deploy it to meet the service objectives within your unique wireless environment.

If this isn’t done, you may be left with too little or too much hardware or kit that is not fit for purpose. Which mean re-engagement of professional soft services, extra procurement of kit and probably an adjustment of timelines (aka lost productivity).

The financial benefit gained from site surveys is the certainty that project costs do not escalate beyond budget.  The correct amount of resource to achieve the desired outcome will be allocated from the beginning. In fact, site surveys often reduce cost to an organisation as they save on having to come back later to fix anything missed the first time.

Usually, two to three site surveys are needed per location. Best practice is to run a virtual site survey first and follow that up with actual on-site surveys before and after implementation to ensure the design objectives are met.

Unless the office or environment is small and contained and wireless users do not require service out of that contained area, I would recommend surveys as an important part of any wireless network upgrade or installation.