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Engineer's view: Wireless LAN performance and Wi-Fi client variation

Wi-Fi client variability affects wireless LAN performance and end user experience more than the industry wants you to know. A Dell laptop with Windows Vista might have inferior performance to a Lenovo laptop with Windows 7, even though both are 802.11n clients. In this Q&A, Gary Putman, enterprise network manager for Cabela's, a Nebraska-based retailer of sports gear, shares his thoughts on what the industry should do about it.

In your opinion, why do Wi-Fi clients vary in how they perform on a WLAN, and what should the industry do about it?

Learn how Microsoft has tackled the problem of Wi-Fi client variation and wireless LAN performance in its corporate network.
Wireless technology is evolving rapidly. Some manufacturers are taking their best guess on what they should add to their hardware/software to be prepared for the new wireless technologies. Other manufacturers haven't updated their technology in years. When all the clients have to be on the same wireless network, the settings may not allow optimum performance for everyone. We also see differences in how the client management software works with the hardware. In many cases, troublesome laptops may work better using Windows to manage wireless settings vs. the [wireless] card's manufacturer's software.

I believe the industry should define better standards, perform better quality assurance [test with other manufacturers] and make it easier to troubleshoot. [This will] allow the technology to run optimally for all clients. Customers need wireless to be as stable as Ethernet. How does this problem of varied Wi-Fi client performance manifest itself on your wireless LAN?
We see this in help desk tickets. When you fix an issue in one area to fix a certain type of wireless client, another type of client may be negatively impacted. How does it affect user experience of wireless LAN performance?
While we strive to give everyone optimal performance, this is difficult to do for every square foot of real estate. Some clients work fine as long as they are connected. A somewhat slow connection is acceptable. This is not the case with real-time protocols such as voice and video. Dropping a call or poor voice quality is unacceptable. Rebooting is not uncommon to reconnect wireless devices and is a user inconvenience.

More on wireless LAN management and performance
A tip on how to troubleshoot wireless LAN connectivity problems.

A complete guide to wireless network deployment and management techniques.

Learn the value of integrating management of wired and wireless networks.

How do you try to get visibility into this varied wireless LAN performance, and what do you do about it?
We use Aruba's Airwave product to monitor performance and troubleshoot client issues. Using this tool, we actually found cases where we had to shut access points off because we deployed too many and they worked against one another. We are developing plans to change access point layouts, developing a refresh plan because of the fast-changing technology, and continuing to do extensive testing of clients prior to deployment.

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