How to gather WiFi requirements

If we prepare well, an excellent WiFi service and a happy customer should follow.

So what is involved in preparation to deliver an enterprise-grade Wireless service?

  1. Information and Requirements gathering (this blogpost)
  2. Wireless Design
  3. Wireless Deployment & Testing

The below is a list of things I consider are absolutely key to understand before being able to move to the next step: designing the customer’s WiFi service.

The first engagement is usually a sit-down with the customer to understand what they want to achieve by installing an (enterprise-grade) WiFi service; understand their outcome expectations and to flesh out business and technical requirements. A heads up, the ‘outcome expectations’ can be a long conversation, as it should be.

Site Environment. We will discuss the site environments in the first meeting but we still need to get on-premise at some stage. Wall materials, ceiling heights, external and internal interference, numbers and density of users and more. It will entail at least one site inspection followed by one or more site surveys. The outcomes from these site surveys provide detailed information in order that we can plan the design.

Numbers of users accessing the service. How many users? Are the users clumped together in one main area or spread evenly across an area?

Types of applications used over the service. Find out the critical business applications to be prioritised and the resource requirements of these apps.  We will need to estimate numbers of simultaneous users.

Types of technology accessing the service.  Each device has different behaviour and different capability sets when using wireless.  It’s not just about which 802.11 standard it supports.

Existing wireless – some or all of it may need to be removed. If some of the current Access Point placement is going to be maintained, we can re-use the existing infrastructure cabling = cost + time savings. Ta Dah!

PoE switch port availability. Enough PoE (Power over Ethernet) ports to supply power to all Access Points. Some vendors’ Access Points require extra grunt. PoE+ power rather than PoE. Check the customer’s switch fleet to see what is supported.

10GbE port availability. Some wireless vendors use wireless controllers that, in a chosen architecture, will require 10GbE interfaces to be utilised.

Preferred vendor. If customer has one. Some customers or their service providers will only work with a particular manufacturer. Vendor selection impacts the design phase as WiFi vendors diverge in their approach to deliver an enterprise-grade WiFi service.

Backhaul bandwidth. Calculations must consider bandwidth both per individual site and the aggregate to data centres/Internet. If creating an extra 300Mbps of sustained traffic for an event, then perhaps the existing 20 Megabit pipes to the site will not cut it.

Guest service. This sets off its own subset of requirements:

Presentation of the Guest service: some organisations require some legal Ts & Cs to be accepted by a Guest before allowing public access. Some will want to present logos or advertise something in a captive web portal. Some will wish to charge for access.

Where is Guest WiFi to be available in the organisation? Only at head office meeting rooms, only in cafe areas?

Guest on-boarding, security and network access. How do Guests receive their access credentials, how long are they allowed on the network, any bandwidth restrictions? In addition, there maybe separate levels of Guest use depending on the type of guest. Trusted contractor versus general public for example.

BYOD. If using BYOD, hopefully there’s already a framework in place to determine who is allowed to access what, from which device. If the BYOD device type isn’t standardised  then we will make general assumptions about capability and tackle individual issues as they come up.

Security Requirements. This conversation is more about how to authenticate authorised users than type of encryption.

Application Visibility and Control (AVC) and Reporting. If the customer hasn’t had insight into what applications are going over their network before now, then they are in for a treat. AVC also provides the network with the ability to prioritise critical business apps over non-critical traffic, e.g. social media.

Support. Who will support the user community? Are they experienced at troubleshooting WiFi? Is training required?

Management. How the wireless infrastructure will be integrated into the organisation’s existing ICT management toolsets: alerting, reporting, maintenance, asset and lifecycle management.

At the end of this, Network Architects are armed with much of the information we need to begin design. For larger organisations, with multiple locations, it is just the beginning of perhaps months of work of site surveys and site analysis.

Site surveys will always uncover challenges, which is why we do them. At the end of a recent site survey, I found the office tenants below and above my customer were using 80MHz wide channels. Thank you. Thank you for messing up the spectrum for everyone. But also, sorry for what I’m going to do to your 80MHz channels when I turn my 27 APs on.



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.

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.

Business Agility and Wi-Fi

Often in business, time = money.

In a competitive market, a business must stay agile; whether it is rapid development of new ideas to open new markets, reaction to competitive threats, or using new intelligence gained from data mining (Big Data) to improve their market share.

For a business to be agile in supporting the primary business objectives, technology is considered more and more of a competitive advantage but only if it can enable the toolsets (applications and infrastructure for example) needed by staff.

The computer network is enablement.  This is not to say it is more important than any other business asset;  just that we all know what happens when the network goes down.  Productivity stops. People complain.  Customer Service is impacted.

Wi-Fi has shown that it can improve productivity in the workplace.  Staff have the flexibility to move around the office or campus environments.  By not being tied to their desks they are able to participate and work where and when required; improving not only productivity but often staff satisfaction/morale and staff retention.  It takes less time to install a wireless network than to run wired infrastructure cabling throughout a building – it is certainly cheaper – hence the office is available earlier and the business of doing business is accelerated.

BYOD devices such as tablets and Smartphones drive Wi-Fi adoption in business even further.

The ‘consumerisation’ revolution has been elevated largely through maturing Wi-Fi technology.  iPads in hotel rooms for guests to order services, restaurant waiters with Wi-Fi connected devices to order reliably,  immediately and error-free, self-registration through your smartphone at events…Companies or organisations are constantly innovating using technology over the Wi-Fi network to showcase new services and/or new products.

I see Wi-Fi as a true enabler of improved agility in today’s business environment.

When Wi-Fi is professionally designed and implemented, it will always be there. Invisible, reliable and immediate, like turning on a light switch.