When upgrades are not about technology

While at a customer’s slightly unusual site (let’s just say, heavy machinery with very custom hardware and applications) they suggested upgrading their wireless installation to the latest technology.  Suddenly foretelling an unanticipated event while upgrading – and subsequent disruption to production, a brief look of alarm crept out.

Actually, similar to the somewhat alarmed look my wife gives me when I reach for another piece of cake.  A look that urges one to ‘reconsider’.

The existing solution works fine, quite well in fact.  The known cost and unknown consequences (for now) of such an upgrade activity were a little alarming considering the as yet unproven benefits of a new solution working with their existing custom devices.

Turns out however, the upgrade had nothing to do with improving the WiFi.  Bigger things were happening; which would impact the wireless network.  And while not near end of support, the existing wireless network in some parts is four years old.  So, End-of-Life in accounting terms.  We all know that the bean counters love to have expensive new items to depreciate.

All the customer needed from me at this time was to call out anything they might be missing.  I noted a couple of things for consideration and then basically, got out of the way.

Reminder to self: technology upgrades may not always be about the technology.  They may be just be a side impact of bigger commercial decisions that are going ahead.

As for the wireless installation, don’t know what I was worried about.  Might have some cake to celebrate.

How to get 1.3Gbps throughput over WiFi

Most manufacturers advertise impressive speeds of up to 1.3Gbps (Gigabits per second) for their latest WiFi gear.  That’s pretty quick.

However, WiFi is a half-duplex technology that relies on substantial protocol overhead to transmit and receive. 1,300Mbps is actually only roughly 650Mbps in the equivalent wired domain, the domain that we are used to comparing speed and throughput.  Also, that target of 1300Mbps will not have a sustained throughput rate like a wired connection, it will be decidedly ‘spotty’.

That said, to get 1.3Gbps [half-duplex] throughput on your WiFi, start with a high performance enterprise-grade wireless Access Point (AP) and a modern high performance laptop i.e. minimum of 3x antennas built-in.

Next, we need to remove everybody else’s devices.  Turn off EVERY other WiFi capable device within 100 metres.  This includes all devices outside of your control.  Neighbouring WiFi modems and wireless Access Points, all other laptops, tablets, smartphones, SmartTVs, Chromecast, Apple iSomething, microwave ovens, IoT emitters, baby monitors and so forth.  Nothing else should be left on.

By now, we must be in a cave somewhere.

Next: tune the specific enterprise-grade features on the AP for high-performance.  Left at default parameters out of the box, key settings critical to high performance would not be enabled.

Then (very important): place laptop within 3 metres (10 feet) of the AP.

Alternatively: go to a specialised wireless testing facility where just you and your laptop sit in a special little room that repels all wireless interference (roughly akin to a recording studio with soundproof walls).

Either way, this is the only way that we will come even close to the advertised speed.

Back to the real world.  Undoubtedly, from time to time your laptop may be in an insanely good position relative to the AP and environment and advise that your connected data rate is indeed 1300Mbps.  In the wired world, this would actually be what you are getting.  In the wireless world, this is not what you get.  You get (substantially) less.

Consider the wireless data rate to be similar to the maximum speed on a car’s speedometer.  Your actual speed, will be limited by the traffic and environment around you.  Just like wireless.

Where Minor Adjustment = Big Improvement

Sometimes we need to adjust the car radio dial a little to avoid crackly interference and receive a cleaner signal.  A minor adjustment, a millimetre or two to the right or left, can make all the difference.  When that wireless radio signal is being affected by external interference, there is an audible impact; our personal antennas (our ears) pick that up and we go about trying to improve it.

So how do we achieve that with WiFi?  How does one make those slight, minute adjustments that may improve wireless performance by 20%?

Professional Analysis is the answer.  The ability to understand the data presented by specialised software allows wireless network professionals to know where to make those minor tweaks that result in measureable performance improvements.

The key thing to realise here is that the solution maybe quite simple but the general user just doesn’t have the toolsets or the knowledge to find those simple settings to tweak.

Remember the old story of when a factory called a guy to fix a sudden stop in machinery; he came in, examined it, then used a hammer to tap a particular point and bingo, everything started working. His subsequent bill of $200 for the work was questioned.  His simple response, “For the tap, $10. For knowing where to tap, $190.”

 

 

Netflix on the business network

While the network is carrying business critical applications, all well and good.  But Netflix and Soundcloud streaming?  They’re usually red flags.

Enter Application Awareness. One of the most useful outcomes from deploying enterprise-grade wireless is obtaining valuable insights into what the network is actually busy doing and the ability to act upon that information automatically.

The network is an asset that an organisation uses like any other tool to run its business.  Having visibility into how that asset is being utilised is of tremendous value.

Application Awareness leads to a higher level of detailed visibility into an organisation’s actual, ground-level operations, of how users are using the network services.  From this a business is able to identify trends, prevent threats, or recognise that it may need to improve the overall service experience e.g. an increase in capacity.

Many enterprise wireless vendors build Application Awareness into their products.  They also make it easy for administrators to enforce a differentiated service based on profiles;  triggered by application sensors built into the product.  When sensors detect a voice call for example, a certain level of network resources can be awarded to it.  When the sensors detect music streaming, the network can be configured to respond to that differently.

The system can generate regular reports on all of the above, including the health of the network.  The information that these reports provide to the business becomes valuable from Day 1 and indispensible in supporting and optimising the utilisation of this business asset.

An organisation that before was somewhat blind to what the Wi-Fi was busy doing, and not entirely sure of how their asset was being utilised, now has valuable insights and an input for future planning.

A Guide to Wi-Fi Requirements.

Do you know what you want, what you really, really want?

Sometimes we need to flesh out real requirements for a Wi-Fi service.  A common request from customers is simply, “Install Wi-Fi at xyz location”.  Actual requirements start with understanding the desired outcome or performance expectations and working backwards from there.

There are relevant questions.  Such as what type of user experience is required and what density of users will be simultaneously using the Wi-Fi service. Or what existing systems does the service need to integrate with?

Business questions first.  If we don’t understand the business reasons for wireless in the first place, we won’t be able to design a solution that meets expectations.  Why is the business investing in a wireless service, what are the required business outcomes and timelines and how will the business measure the success of the installation?  What applications will they run and what type of activities do the business expect users to perform over the wireless medium?

Technical questions that address wireless functionality naturally follow. The customer may have standards that must be followed to integrate a wireless service:  user authentication, encryption, device management, reporting, logging, wireless intrusion detection (and desired responses), application performance, density of users, or different user groups.

From answers to these business and technical questions, we are able to begin noting the Wi-Fi requirements.  The discovery phase will assist here:  identifying supporting infrastructure, is there adequate bandwidth for the solution, is Quality of Service (QoS) required for application performance and which 802.11 standards need to be supported.

During the process of discovery, in some situations we may find that a Wi-Fi solution will not actually be fit for purpose!

The physical environment where wireless service will be installed prompts its own questions.  If site access for an inspection is difficult: a picture tells a thousand words.  A few well-chosen photos of the wireless environment will tell us a lot about what needs further analysis.  The environment will mandate if internal or external (weatherproof) Wi-Fi equipment is necessary, if internal or external antennas will be required, where there may be coverage challenges and so forth.  Physical security of equipment inside the environment should also be taken into consideration.

Site surveys are crucial.  We will want to know if the proposed environment is subject to wireless interference or,  if it has to contend with 50 foreign Wi-Fi networks fighting for the same channel space.  Site surveys can discover useful information that then become technical requirements that feed into the design.  For example, if a site survey uncovers heavy amounts of interference on a commonly used channel by Wi-Fi, then the design can avoid using this channel.

Most importantly: with Wi-Fi it is all about the client.  If the technology the client is using to connect to the wireless infrastructure is poor, then the experience will be poor.  No matter how good the wireless system.  If you have a mixed bag of client devices, old and new, fast and slow; all of this will affect the design.

So tell us what you want.  What you really, really want.

 

 

Coverage, Capacity, Density.

Last year at a seminar, wireless coverage inside the convention centre was excellent.  The numbers of people (density) jumping on the service however, affected the capacity of the centre’s network. While accessibility was excellent, the use of the application on the service was really slow.

Enterprise wireless coverage is more than just reach. It usually has to support x numbers of users seamlessly roaming between business areas without dropping connectivity and support a connection quality to complete business activities in an expedient manner.

Wi-Fi should invisibly and reliably, work in the background.  A slow network or a blackspot area quickly becomes noticed – internal social media is often the place where problems are ‘discussed’. Plugging these gaps usually has a cost involved but the value gained from increased productivity and job satisfaction, often outweighs this.

In the wired world, coverage means both ends of the link are connected.  With wireless, the strongest device has the better coverage. The power and ability of antennas (and therefore the reach and signal quality) on a tablet or smartphone will not match that of a laptop or the wireless infrastructure.  Both ends of a Wi-Fi link should therefore be aligned in order that the quality of coverage expectations are consistent.

So what are the factors that determine our Wi-Fi service experience? Fundamentally, it is a combination of coverage, capacity, type of business activity (e.g multimedia), numbers of users and the types of devices being used. Client device selection has a measurable impact in a wireless environment; since Wi-Fi is a shared resource, too many ‘slow’ devices will lower performance for everyone.

To sum up, coverage and capacity define the infrastructure needed to deliver a certain level of service, to an expected density of user devices.  Get it right and you won’t notice the network at all.

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.