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Wi-Fi requirements based on organizational needs, not WLAN vendor

As wireless vendors move away from competing on price or speed, IT professionals share their Wi-Fi requirements.

Price and speed are no longer the guiding criteria for selecting a wireless LAN vendor. IT professionals are looking for infrastructure that meets the Wi-Fi requirements of their specific industries, and many vendors have begun gearing their products toward these vertical market segments, according to the findings of the recent Wireless Wave report from Forrester Research.

"What we found out is that from a technology standpoint, a lot of vendors have the exact same stuff, and that's not how they are differentiating themselves from other [vendors] in the market anymore. They all offer 802.11ac, but they are starting to differentiate on other interesting features, including features that aren't wireless-specific -- like being able to support the Internet of Things [IoT]," said Andre Kindness, senior analyst for Forrester Research, based in Cambridge, Mass., and author of the latest Wireless Wave.

"Raw wireless itself is an old hat -- nine out of 10 enterprise Wi-Fi vendors will be able to solve [an enterprise's] problems," said Matthew Norwood, solutions engineer for Bedroc, a systems integrator based in Franklin, Tenn. "It really depends on what specific features a particular business needs."

IT pros cite scalability and manageability as Wi-Fi requirements

Forrester's new Wireless Wave did identify the strengths and weaknesses of the 10 top wireless vendors, but it doesn't attempt to offer a general ranking of vendors. Instead, it is a vendor comparison tool where IT pros set parameters based on industry priorities and receive a ranked list based on their industry-specific Wi-Fi requirements. IT pros can pull levers on access point control types (such as appliance- or cloud-based management options), BYOD management features and location-based services capabilities.

"It's not really about how many .11ac antennas a vendor has anymore -- it sounds good and adds value, but in the grand scheme of a deployment, it won't be the most important feature," Forrester's Kindness said.

Because hardware is less of a differentiating feature, most Wi-Fi purchasing decisions are going to come down to software features that will vary depending on the industry, or size of the business. Enhanced management software will be especially appealing for large environments, said Joe Rogers, associate director of network engineering at the University of South Florida, a Cisco and Aruba Wi-Fi shop. "If I had to start from scratch, I'd be interested in the nicer management features and being able to see more user and device metrics at this point -- not so much the baseline enterprise functionality of .11ac," he said.

While Wi-Fi requirements will differ by business, the Wireless Wave recommends that IT professionals evaluate vendor offerings that are scalable, shared, simplified, standardized and secure.

"Growth is always going to be an issue for us -- we typically see about 1,000 new devices every semester, Rogers said. "[Vendors] should also focus on better reporting capabilities [for] capacity planning purposes."

Even the traditional enterprise cubicle farm is becoming a high-density environment, with each employee touting multiple wireless devices in a congested area, said Jonathan Davis, a network engineer who works at a global manufacturer. "Everyone expects wireless to work, even in really high-density deployments. But not every vendor does a great job with allowing IT to manage many devices at the same time very easily," he said. "That's really key when you have multiple controllers spread out across sites. You want to be able to easily meet new requirements, deploy policies or distribute patches."

Emerging Wi-Fi requirements center on connecting the previously unconnected

IoT is on the minds of many enterprise IT professionals, but some industries -- like healthcare and manufacturing -- will face challenges associated with connecting devices to the network that were not traditionally on the Wi-Fi network. Some vendors are developing a little more sophistication around identifying nontraditional endpoints in the environment -- like Cisco and Motorola, Forrester's Kindness said.

Bedroc's Norwood works with healthcare-focused businesses with many connected devices in their environment, and IoT is a big factor for these organizations. "Large healthcare networks require a secure wireless LAN that can support all medical devices, as well as real-time location services for tracking assets -- like wheelchairs or crash carts," he said.

Regardless of industry, many businesses will be tasked with supporting low-bandwidth consuming devices -- like sensors and lighting control -- on their wireless LANs, and should be prepared to support and manage these assets that won't necessarily require faster Wi-Fi speeds, but will still demand reliable access to the network, Davis said.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Gina Narcisi, news writer, and follow @GeeNarcisi on Twitter.

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