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How to tackle wireless network planning in 9 steps

Wireless network planning may appear daunting. But IT teams can tackle this task in nine key phases, which include capacity, network integration and redundancy.

To paraphrase Dwight D. Eisenhower: Plans might be useless, but planning is indispensable. While Eisenhower referred specifically to battle preparations, the same could be said about wireless network planning.

Without proper planning, IT and network teams may inadvertently bypass essential organizational requirements, cause inefficient processes, and waste valuable money and time. Teams can start the planning process by familiarizing themselves with business objectives, marketing initiatives, and allocated budget and resources, said Cherie Martin, senior solutions marketing manager at Aruba Networks, during a recent webinar.

But to build a network that can adequately support the organization, IT teams should dig into the niche areas of wireless network planning.

"You can't plan for everything, but the planning will put you in a better space," Martin said.

The wireless network planning checklist

Coverage. The first, somewhat obvious phase in wireless network planning is to define where the organization needs coverage. This step includes looking into geographical considerations, like site locations, but also extends to environmental and seasonal factors, Martin said.

For example, teams should evaluate the network during peak business times to determine ideal performance requirements throughout the year. She also advised teams to pay attention to difficult coverage areas that might have thick walls, metal environments, refrigeration or other factors that could interfere with radio frequency and access points (APs).

Capacity. The next step is to estimate your organization's expected growth. Find out how many users are currently on the network and how many might join in the near future. IT teams shouldn't hesitate to ask about the possibility of any business acquisitions that could add new network users. This step is also when teams should look into the types of applications that the network needs to support now and in the next few years, Martin said.

Applications. The third phase is to dive deeper into the organization's application requirements. IT teams should do their best to ensure the network is aligned with business priorities, including mission-critical applications and workflows. These considerations could also include mobile support, workforce policy updates, marketing initiatives and guest Wi-Fi, Martin said. Also, teams shouldn't forget to evaluate data-heavy and bandwidth-intensive applications, like IoT and video streaming.

Security. Although security planning can be hard, organizations can still benefit from the planning process and take steps to secure the wireless network, Martin said. Look into security features like wireless intrusion prevention and detection, two-layer authentication, role-based access and firewalls.

As for compliance considerations, she said some wireless systems can automatically log data for audits to help minimize manual records or analysis.  

Simplicity. The fifth phase in wireless network planning is to simplify, specifically when looking into management. IT teams can benefit from automation that assists with troubleshooting and reduces time spent on menial, routine management tasks. Martin advised teams to evaluate management systems that offer GUIs with easy navigation and provide granular information about APs, rogue devices and guest Wi-Fi registration, among other considerations.

Redundancy. IT teams should then focus on how to support the business in case something goes wrong with the network. Determine how to ensure redundancy for cloud connectivity and edge devices, in addition to traditional facility components, Martin said.

"Most of the problems you see with overall network connectivity usually have to do with WAN variability -- the connection between the cloud and APs, edge, switches and gateways," she added.

Network integration. This phase of wireless network planning helps teams pinpoint end-to-end network visibility and integration needs. For example, next-generation APs that support the newest Wi-Fi standard, 802.11ax, require 60 kilowatts of power, but most current Power over Ethernet (PoE) options don't yet support that number, Martin said.

As such, teams should pay attention to how PoE and scalability would work with the network they're building. Other network integration factors include network reliability, performance, access network uplinks and pipe capacity.

Management. The next step is to further examine the management system. Consider how your network management platform handles all the different network components, whether it's APs, switches or software-defined WAN management, Martin said. The type of management your team chooses will depend on the size of your organization. Smaller organizations can work with AP clusters that offer "lower management overheads," while larger organizations would benefit from cloud-based management that provides better scalability and redundancy, she added.

Site survey. After IT teams address these steps and create a wireless design that meets their needs, Martin advised they conduct a site survey. Wireless site surveys differ in type, with passive, active and predictive inspections available as hardware or software options. But each type helps organizations determine AP position, radio frequency, capacity, quality of service and other metrics.

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