In general, there are two categories of products available to manage wireless networks: network performance management and network operations management. To choose the right product for their particular company, networking professionals and others involved in purchase decisions must stay on top of what an ever-evolving market of wireless management products and technologies.
How to manage wireless networks
All enterprise-grade WLAN products come with a built-in management system. These systems are engineered to handle functions such as basic provisioning and configuration, network visibility, access management, and user and device visibility. Some come with advanced security management, such as a wireless intrusion detection system or wireless intrusion protection system, spectrum analysis and traffic steering.
"Third-party management solutions generally can take these elements and drill down deeper or provide WLAN visibility in context of the entire network from edge to core," said Nolan Greene, an analyst at IDC.
Most third-party software available now to help manage wireless networks is geared toward WLAN monitoring, performance measurement and wireless packet analysis, oftentimes within the context of a multivendor network infrastructure. It may also cover spectrum analysis and interference analysis and device connectivity troubleshooting. Some offer a focus on security and compliance with regulations such as PCI or SOX, for organizations that must comply with such regulations.
"These third-party solutions can bridge any gaps their networking vendor's management solutions present," Greene said.
Dan Conde, an analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group, said a typical setup for managing wireless networks might include a site survey tool such as NetScout's AirMagnet Wi-fi Analyzer PRO, which can provide real-time analysis of 802.11a/b/g/n and ac wireless networks. Then, you might want to add a set of performance tools to see traffic patterns and congestion and to help with security. Finally, those tools could be supplemented by application- or use-specific tools, such as those needed to handle the special requirements of retail or casino operations.
Conde said, ultimately, tools to manage wireless networks are no different than traditional network tools. In the final analysis, the biggest differences are usually specific to radio coverage issues such as identifying hot and dead spots, he added.
Wi-Fi is the big story, but not the only story
Many networking professionals can give you their laundry list of critical features for wireless network management, noted Andre Kindness, an analyst at Forrester Research. However, this response may be rather limited because most professionals have grown up on Wi-Fi, and that's their first and only thought when it comes to wireless management.
In reality, Kindness noted, at retail stores, hospitals, distribution centers, manufacturing plants and other areas, there are usually more than five separate technologies -- each with its own specific management challenge.
"While they don't all overlap on the same spectrum, some do; this means wireless management has to be more than Wi-Fi," he said.
Bluetooth is one wireless standard that has been stymied by management issues, Kindness said. These have made Bluetooth's operational cost extremely high due to the lack of sophisticated oversight. "Networking professionals would be hard-pressed to find a tool that gives them one hundredth the capabilities found in Wi-Fi management software," he said. And, even if the varying wireless systems don't overlap, networking professionals will still have to manage wireless environments outside of Wi-Fi, such as low-power personal area networks; other WANs; and, at some point, a wireless fabric for internet of things devices.
Key features to watch for
Greene said the most important features to assess in wireless network management depend mostly on the use case. For example, he said, when considering application performance management, look for additional features that support functionalities like voice and video over Wi-Fi. "At a high level, there are no features that one should avoid across the board, and the needed breadth of feature sets depends on organizational needs," Greene noted. For example, spectrum analysis may be less necessary in deployments with lower levels of spectral interference.
As people and organizations move to wireless as a default, the management tools needed to oversee wireless performance must be as robust and full-featured as those now used for wireline networking, Conde said; they can't be just an afterthought. The latest generation of Wi-Fi management tools tend to be cloud-based, which can offer organizations a compelling advantage.
"I think those are nice in that it centralizes management and enables you to focus on the management itself and not setting up the management infrastructure."
Assessing and selecting: The bottom line
When selecting tools to manage wireless networks, consider your overall network vendor ecosystem, Greene advised, as well as what tools are already available through your WLAN vendor. "If additional tools are needed, seek a vendor that has established partnerships and interoperability with your network infrastructure vendors."
The use cases also matter "a lot," according to Conde; for example, if wireless is being used in a customer facing area, such as to help with retail -- identifying shopper behavior by tracking Wi-Fi or Bluetooth signals as they move through the premises -- then your needs will be much different than an office setting. "The key thing is to understand why you are using wireless," Conde said. What kind of wireless? What end-user app types -- plain vanilla web access for guests, core corporate use or augmenting mobile networks with Wi-Fi calling?
Above all, make sure you know the coverage area and capacity of your wireless LAN structures, where they are located and what frequency band they use. "How and where the wireless network interacts with your wired infrastructure is very important to understand," said Jim Duffy, an analyst at 451 Research. Comprehension of the network topology, its physical layout and any predictable patterns of mobile use -- such as large numbers of people using devices in a lunch area at midday -- can also help with management challenges.
Tools may need to be customized somewhat to match actual usage, Duffy said. "I don't think any of these tools will solve too many problems right out of the box." Other tools may have APIs that can support interoperability with assets such as firewalls and load balancers. The real good news, he noted, is that most tools are easy to use and built around strong, user-friendly interfaces.
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