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Travel tech company revs up Wi-Fi performance with analytics

TravelTab needed to find a way to improve its Wi-Fi performance so it could better anticipate customer demands and bandwidth requirements. Analytics software from Aerohive helped.

Network managers are always scrambling for tools that will let them determine how efficiently their networks are operating. Having that visibility is even more challenging in Wi-Fi networks, which are subject to a variety of culprits that can depress Wi-Fi performance.

Frontline Technology Solutions, which sells the TravelTab smartphone to travelers, faced an even greater predicament, according to Kris Gnagey, network administrator of the company, based in Winter Park, Fla. That's because the company's Wi-Fi network isn't local or located in a few branch offices controlled by the company; rather, it spans across more than 80 airports in three countries.

Getting Wi-Fi performance and other status information about its far-flung network wasn't just difficult; it was just about impossible.

Automating functions for the first time

The answer was technology from Aerohive -- now owned by Extreme Networks -- incorporating both access points (APs) and the vendor's cloud-based HiveManager administration application. The platform, deployed a few years ago, allowed Frontline for the first time to gather usage data and automate how it upgraded components.

Frontline runs its TravelTab service through rental car companies, such as Avis, Budget and Hertz, primarily targeting foreign business travelers who don't want to bring their cellphones overseas. The Frontline Wi-Fi network runs separately from the rental car companies' networks. The Aerohive APs connect to an LTE router, which provides the cellular internet access required by managers to offer TravelTab services to business customers.

Frontline offers a standard service that provides basic cellular coverage for a traveler on a smartphone and a more premium service that comes with a built-in Wi-Fi hotspot on the phone. Managing bandwidth is important. To help Frontline better anticipate bandwidth requirements, earlier this year, it rolled out HiveManager Insight. Insight is an analytics engine that uses machine learning and AI to provide an even more comprehensive overview of network Wi-Fi performance and usage.

Pinpointing customer demands, requirements

"If we see people abusing the network, we can implement web filters to block their access," Gnagey said. "On the other hand, if we find that an airport -- for example, LAX [Los Angeles International Airport] -- is using a great deal of bandwidth, then we can opt to bring on a dedicated DSL or cable connection."

Adding a dedicated link can save Frontline thousands or tens of thousands of dollars. That's the type of business intelligence Frontline couldn't mine from the company's legacy Wi-Fi foundation.

Bob Laliberte, a practice director and senior analyst who covers networking technology for the Enterprise Strategy Group in Milford, Mass., said cloud-based analytics apps equipped with machine learning are particularly suited to capacity planning exercises.

"Ideally, companies can use these tools to identify several months ahead of time if they will need a broadband connection at a certain location," he said. "By improving the service for the local managers, they are also making it possible for the managers at the airports to service their end customers more efficiently."

HiveManager Insight also has IoT ramifications, said David Coleman, director of product marketing at Extreme, which completed its acquisition of Aerohive in early August.

"IoT clients can automatically be assigned access rights and firewall restrictions, and it can also identify anomalies," he said. "For example, if Insight sees that an IoT thermostat is roaming, that's not expected behavior. So, Insight has the ability to blacklist the device so the network manager can further inspect it."

Frontline's Gnagey said he'd like to use the machine learning and AI features within Insight to help decide where to place APs in a bid to further accelerate Wi-Fi performance. "That will help, especially for locations where we have multiple APs."

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