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.

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.

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

A brief recap:  in Part 1, I talked about what 802.11ac can provide and left it asking whether we should invest in 11ac.

If you are in a greenfield (new) situation, I would recommend 802.11ac.  Even if you do not need the technology at this stage, newer devices will have support for it and will be able to take advantage of it if it is there.  The population of client devices in your organisation supporting 11ac will only increase.  This is a natural progression, as newer standards become the norm.

If at present there are only a few laptops that support 11ac, for a small percentage of the user base, a costly redesign and upgrade exercise may not make an adequate return on investment.

I touched on caveats in Part 1.  One of these is that in order to reach the highest speeds, your environment may require that you deploy larger numbers of Wireless Access Points than what you have now.  The reason for this is that the particular speed increases that look so attractive require no obstructions (e.g. walls) between client and Access Point.  More Access Points may be required to service the same number of users today.

As each business environment is unique and by that I mean not the organisation as a whole but each location or operations within that business may have different technology in use and operate in different environments.  For example a warehouse vs an office vs on-board a train or a ship, etc.  Should a particular environment not lend itself to the performance enhancements that 11ac offers, then it may be a difficult sell to push for an upgrade.

One option is to wait for Wave 2 before any significant investment is to be made.  Wave 2 promises something Wi-Fi has not yet been able to do: deliver data to more than one client simultaneously.  It may seem that it does that already, with a group of you sharing the Wi-Fi in your office.  But what the wireless service is actually doing is slicing up the airtime at a very fast rate (in microseconds) and sharing it between you, so that it appears as if you are downloading at the same time.  With 11ac Wave 2, you actually will be.

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.

Enterprise Wi-Fi differences

Although not obvious, there are substantial differences to Enterprise or Corporate-grade Wi-Fi to those systems for Home/SOHO use.

For a user, these differences can be transparent.  For them it is business as usual: a password gets entered and their devices are able to connect to the Wi-Fi network.  For a business, there are valid features in enterprise grade equipment that are of important, if not essential, operational use.

To many mid-size to large organisations, requirements are usually more demanding to those of the SOHO/SMB market. The most common needs for wireless services in a corporate environment typically include the following.

  1. Coverage, Capacity and Density – servicing many clients in a contained area or vice versa.
  2. Differentiated services experience – to support critical business applications, BYOD or Guest-only WiFi for visitors.
  3. Performance and reliability – an exemplary user experience regardless of numbers and loading on the network.
  4. Advanced security – leveraging centralised authentication and dynamic data encryption for users, plus network-wide protection through wireless intrusion detection systems.
  5. Network Integration – a seamless service across wired & wireless networks.
  6. Support – the supported environment is consistent with existing operations.
  7. Centralised Management and Reporting – global visibility from one portal; leveraging common toolsets, processes and metrics to produce business performance objectives.

Most of these deliverables can only be achieved with enterprise-grade wireless solutions.  SOHO devices, as the name suggests, are otherwise perfect for a single instance of a small or home office, but do not have the ability to scale or to offer enterprise features.

In the end, its worth considering your business requirements from a different perspective.  It’s possible that you may arrive at a solution that was not expected.