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Wireless networking has always required a special skill set. On one hand, it's difficult to remain current, as...
wireless becomes more complex. On the other, we have to keep track of the technology's development, even as the folks we work for and with are oblivious to it.
Value-added reseller installers and system designers could tell countless tales of horror based on their out-of-touch counterparts in sales, selling Wi-Fi environments that are sometimes impossible to provide as scoped. There is an absolute gap between wireless LAN (WLAN) professionals and the rest of the IT world, and filling that void is a matter of training -- and lots of it.
Even among those making a living in Wi-Fi, there are glaring differences in what we know and what we can do versus our colleagues. The Wi-Fi training each of us has had -- combined with different opportunities to amass various experiences in the field -- makes us better at some things and weaker in others. But training is foundational to staying credible, and not staying current with wireless training risks stagnancy in a discipline that is getting more complicated, with no relief in sight.
The origin of Wi-Fi networking confusion
I've been fortunate to have witnessed the evolution of wireless networking from the early days. I started my wireless career in the days when 802.11b was king. There were a lot fewer wireless client devices back then, range was generally considered more important than capacity because of the low speeds involved, and the WLAN was often an accessory to the Ethernet environment.
It's not news that Wi-Fi caught on quickly. And when 802.11a/g became the standard, those new 54 Mbps data rates really energized the growing WLAN user population. Laptops got smaller, more WLAN vendors joined the market and wireless became mainstream. Then, 802.11n blew it all wide open.
If there was any doubt Wi-Fi could serve as the primary means of network access, 802.11n put an end to that. With smartphones, tablets and high-powered laptops flooding both business and home networks, we suddenly got really interested in capacity-driven wireless designs and a lot of other important, highly technical details that were never quite that important before.
Through all that, there were good networks designed, implemented and used by even more clients. And there were most assuredly bad networks created. I was fortunate to have managers who valued Wi-Fi training, and I was able to get a lot of it. In turn, I was able to train others in wireless design and support. I was also able to see others' struggles. I watched people and organizations absolutely agonize over some aspect of basic wireless networking, and the underlying cause was often a lack of Wi-Fi training.
That absence opened the door to a lot of miscommunication and crossed signals. Perhaps marketing didn't realize that not every part of every WLAN standard gets implemented in real life, and so they sold promised throughputs that really couldn't get implemented. Maybe the deficiency was on the part of the worker bees who never learned how .11ac differs from .11n, or maybe it was management not realizing the old .11b design doesn't work anymore -- five Wi-Fi generations later. Training looms large in any success or failure, if you zoom out far enough.
The growing complexity of WLAN makes Wi-Fi training crucial
Wi-Fi has been getting more complicated since pretty much Day One. Although the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, the Wi-Fi Alliance, the Federal Communications Commission and vendors have each done a fair job in advancing the collective wireless cause, it hasn't been smooth going. The rough spots are where the confusion comes into play. Without a clear frame of technical reference that comes from training, you can't possibly know how to deal with today's Wi-Fi complications, such as old client drivers, devices that can't do enterprise security, OS updates that cripple some set of clients, controller or access point code bugs and many other oddball variables that are unfortunate parts of wireless life.
Looking down the road a bit, we're about to add the yet-to-be-fully realized madness of the internet of things to the mix. If you are in Wi-Fi and don't really get the true nuances associated with the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz spectrum, you're going to be in trouble when the 900 MHz 802.11ah arrives. You also won't be able to answer your managers' questions when they ask how LTE-U might affect your WLAN environment.
Then, there's 802.11ax, which is the next major WLAN standard. Loaded with new, sophisticated features, it makes 802.11.ac look simple. If you don't understand the finer points of .11ac and high-density Wi-Fi, .11ax is likely to blow your mind. All of that is even before we bring software-defined radio, fabric and orchestration to the WLAN. You can't get there for any of these technical paradigms without thoroughly understanding here. And that only comes with Wi-Fi training.
Will today's Wi-Fi training options serve us tomorrow?
If you're looking for WLAN and Wi-Fi training, I'd recommend everyone in any wireless role take the Certified Wireless Specialist (CWS) course from Certified Wireless Network Professionals (CWNP). Sales, marketers, help desk staff, installers and managers who supervise wireless staff all should take the CWS to get a handle on the technical basics of WLAN. Depending on what you do in wireless, you should also consider obtaining other CWNP certifications, including Certified Wireless Network Administrator, Certified Wireless Design Professional and Certified Wireless Analysis Professional. All of these courses are vendor-agnostic and will immerse you in the principles you need to understand the many dimensions of today's wireless world.
If your WLAN vendors offer their own specific training programs, those will also help -- although I advise staffers first take CWNP courses. For designers, support staff and anyone in the business of integrating WLAN with the rest of the enterprise, you also need a reasonably strong, fundamental Ethernet and IP background. There's just no escaping it, as Wi-Fi is just a part of the larger network ecosystem.
Where I get worried -- both for myself and for others in my field -- is in thinking about what's next.
Consider this: Will CWNP or WLAN vendors evolve their Wi-Fi training materials to cover 802.11ah and .11ax in time for us to get up to speed on these? Will CompTIA expand its Mobility+ material to effectively include LTE-U? With concepts like fabric and automation starting to touch the wireless side of the enterprise, should we expect vendors to offer training on every new major development and its implementation? Hopefully, nobody has to self-start and claw his or her way through learning what's important in the professional WLAN world.
You really can't do well in today's complicated WLAN world without decent Wi-Fi training. There are just too many variables across different environments. Even the best of today's training materials are going to have to be updated if we're to have any chance of staying on top of everything coming our way. Many of us will have to become somewhat proficient in coding, or at least able to understand when coders engage us for changes to the WLAN outside of the command line or UI. Expect to learn new concepts that aren't all just specifically wireless-related and to study more. It's a matter of changing yourself as your chosen field changes -- and as a matter of career survival.