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.

 

 

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.

 

 

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.