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Today's wireless networking paradigm is fraught with distraction and potential confusion. As a technology, Wi-Fi dwarfs competing wired access methods in complexity. And the challenge isn't merely understanding wireless enough to be able to effectively design, sell or support WLAN technologies.
To be in the wireless game today -- as a provider or a consumer -- is to be part of a dynamically changing, foggy-feeling roller coaster ride that occasionally leaves reality hard to see. Let's talk about where the fog comes from, and how you might gain clarity from these wireless networking trends, regardless of where your interests in the technology lie.
- Get help if you need help, or get trained. From retail spaces to stadiums, the running theme in WLAN design these days is capacity ahead of coverage. Effective WLANs that service a large concentration of client devices just don't happen. They are designed and engineered for success. From the RF part to where radio meets Ethernet in the closet switches, building Wi-Fi networks takes specialized skills. If you don't have those skills in house, find a partner you can trust. If you have in-house talent, make sure they are keeping their skills and certifications up to date. A Certified Wireless Network Administrator (CWNA) designation from 2004 isn't the same thing as a CWNA from 2014. Wireless changes a lot faster than any other network technology, and staying fresh is a challenge.
- Beware of contextless comparisons and big numbers. Everyone should be from Missouri when it comes to digesting wireless-related vendor propaganda. Adopting a "show me" approach to accepting what's in the glossy marketing materials can go a long way to help keep confusion at bay. Whether shopping for a million-dollar enterprise wireless system or a new small office or home office router at the mall, red flags should go up when you hear phrasing like "10x better performance," "4x longer range," "covers 350 feet" and "speeds up to 1.3 Gbps" applied to wireless. They are all either theoretical or based on some lab tests that have little to do with reality. Flat out, these claims should be ignored. If you can try the gear before purchase, you'll see what I mean. If pre-purchase testing isn't an option, talk to others who have tried the gear (or put some time into reading independent reviews) and see how they made out. Finally, note how similar their use case is to yours.
- Large networks, large feature sets, large price tags. It boggles the mind when you consider how far WLAN has come from the days of 802.11b, even for us with deep wireless roots. With 802.11ac representing the fifth major evolution of Wi-Fi technology, we also see that the notion of a wireless "system" has advanced with time as well. What used to be more of an exercise in how to throw signals, has become more about selecting from long feature sets that include authentication, authorization and accounting, network access control, performance monitoring, alerting, mobile device management and many more modular functions. Thankfully, one rule holds true despite the many choices that have to be made with enterprise wireless: Products and platforms enforce organizational policy and enable organizational goals. This is your grounding rod in the selection process. Once you realize that you don't have to buy or use every nuanced option vendors are waving at you, you can focus on what you actually need. If you haven't yet defined what you want and need out of a wireless system, put the checkbook away or you'll get devoured. Which brings us to…
- All environments don’t need Cadillac-grade wireless. I am a firm believer in the adage, "You get what you pay for," but I also know it's possible to over buy. The best wireless system isn't necessarily the one with the fat price tag in the upper right of Gartner's Magic Quadrant. If you do go with a market leader, it's also OK not to use its top-tier access points (APs) if you don't need that caliber of hardware. For example, if you don't plan on using Cisco's CleanAir capabilities, you can likely save a good buck by buying APs that don't have that functionality. It's also OK to look at the entire wireless market and not just the same vendor you've always used. With new cloud-managed options and the feature gap narrowing between lower-end WLAN space products and their higher-end counterparts, it's truly a buyers' market (but remember to properly determine your needs.)
- Everyone's upgrading to 11ac, aren't they? With so much buzz about the 802.11ac standard, it's understandable that a herd mentality of environments rushing to adopt the latest standard can spring up. At the same time, going to 11ac may not really get you much, depending on your current circumstances. If you are still running old 11a/g or early 11n gear, and aren't anchored by important legacy devices that need to be stuck in wireless time, you're likely due for an upgrade. But if you have a well-designed 11n network that was installed in the last few years, you could do well to wait on going to 11ac. We're at a point where 11ac Wave 2 is immature, and there are still a wide variance of Wi-Fi capabilities coming in client devices. If you have no real pain points and a healthy recent 11n WLAN, it's OK to let this 802.11ac bus pass you by and wait for the next one to come. This will also buy you time for client devices to become more likely to benefit fully from 11ac. That said, if you have new spaces coming online, you want to use 11ac in them. Just make sure that whatever you choose isn't considered bleeding-edge and buggy. Finally, have a good talk with your vendor about its recommendation for cabling 802.11ac access points. They will suggest that you run a single cable per AP, or two. You want to know why and what the implications are on your cabling plant -- especially if you have a large environment.
- You got your consumer stuff in my enterprise! As one who deals with it daily, I frequently whine about the growing tide of consumer-grade gadgetry that finds its way into the business WLAN setting. Given that the Wi-Fi Alliance is composed by the very companies that crank out a lot of these devices, we're not likely to see much relief in the way of interoperability any time soon. Some devices will never work on 802.1x secured networks, and that's just a way of life. Dealing with these devices is yours to figure out for your own environments, and these approaches will take the form of saying "no" sometimes, figuring out how to get some devices on the Wi-Fi despite their client shortcomings and suggesting alternatives -- all in different portions depending on your situation. It's a thorny business, and we're all stuck dealing with it in our own ways. There are just no easy answers here.
- Marriott and the FCC: Now what? The WLAN industry has spent the last decade convincing us that wireless can replace Ethernet as the client access method of choice in home and business settings, but the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has recently delivered a reality check smack down that we all need to heed. It's fair to say that a mindset has developed that essentially says this: Our wireless networks in our spaces are critical infrastructure that we have a right to protect with tools provided by our WLAN vendors. Then came Marriott, with its claim that it was blocking guests' personal hotspots in order to safeguard its wireless equipment. The FCC's message is clear: Wi-Fi is unlicensed, and if you choose to deploy it, you live with whatever signals interfere with it. Period. No WLAN is more important than any other. This is worth keeping in mind as more and more competing and contentious Wi-Fi gets used and you ponder how many device types you can cut the cord on.
About the author:
Lee Badman is a network engineer and wireless technical lead for a large private university. He also teaches classes on networking, wireless network administration and wireless security.
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