Virtual, mobile, social endeavors drive IT in 2011
With 802.11n, enterprise Wi-Fi networks are shifting from convenient to critical. They’re becoming the preferred and primary network access for users – which means IT groups must rethink how they deploy, secure, manage and run the wireless LAN.
facts from the front lines of IT shows that it’s simple to squander the 3x to 5x improvement in Wi-Fi information rate and throughput that 11n offers, as compared to 802.11abg. If that happens, WLANs that were expected to simply handle the surging number of Wi-Fi clients, absorb the sharp uptake in latency-sensitive multimedia traffic, and deliver consistent, high throughput across the enterprise fail to live up to their potential.
quickly evolving characteristics are forcing IT professionals to rethink their approach to WLANs.
Hanset has a broad definition of multimedia. “I don’t think of it as video,” they says. “It’s about designing a wireless network based on the new applications that people are accessing over wireless.” Those can include a video chat application like Apple FaceTime, media-rich Web applications for collaboration or enterprise-sponsored social networking, and VoIP calls.
“My new [Wi-Fi] design criterion is: people reading a newspaper on an iPhone or iPad in a restroom,” says Philippe Hanset, IT architect at University of Tennessee in Knoxville. He’s only half-joking. “People are now watching multimedia content in locations that you did not expect historicallyin the past.”
(A new industry organization, The Multimedia-Grade Wi-Fi Working Group, was recently formed to address a quantity of these issues. Initiated by WLAN seller Aruba Networks, the group includes users such as University of Tennessee and some companies, among them SAP and Verizon Wireless.)
“These have unique performance requirements, like latency and error correction,” says Andrew Borg, senior research analyst in the wireless and mobility practice at Aberdeen Group. “802.11n has to be optimized as part of a well-designed WLAN infrastructure.”
At the same time, the number of Wi-Fi users is growing speedy, and the number of Wi-Fi devices per user is exploding, . At University of Tennessee, Wi-Fi devices have grown from 3,000 to over 9,000 in a couple of years. Today, the majority are devices like iPod touch, and smartphones in lieu of laptops. These new devices usually have smaller, less powerful Wi-Fi radios with less sensitive antennas than those embedded in laptops.
Dealing with these changes requires knowing what applications your users will run, today and in the future; designing a WLAN that can meet specific throughput targets to support those applications; and generating an “infrastructure” that goes beyond the access points and controllers to include network and user security, end-to-end network management, continuous monitoring, and a trained WLAN response team and help table.
Here’s what you need to be aware of to take your enterprise WLAN to the next level.
With 802.11n, a comparatively few access points can generate a Wi-Fi blanket wall-to-wall in the enterprise. But with the evolution of traffic types, applications and clients, that’s no longer . At Scripps College in Claremont, Calif., a single 11n AP could cover a six-classroom building, for example, with perhaps 25 students in each room. “But while everyone can ‘get wireless,’ I’m not sure that 150 people on a single AP, even a two-radio AP, will meet even basic performance needs,” says Jeff Sessler, director of IT at the college.
“Designing and building for capacity means taking in to account the actual use-case of a given area, and deploying APs to meet your performance expectations,” he says.
A key element in such an approach is an understanding of how access points perform under the expected types and volumes of traffic, number of users, and applications. Thorough testing will clarify client requirements, what the AP can deliver, and how and where to deploy them to meet service level requirements.
One practice has been to deploy Wi-Fi networks that have traffic prioritization combined with bandwidth limitations for applications or users; this is part of an overall focus on constantly optimizing wireless performance. However, designing the WLAN from the beginning for the emerging multimedia challenge could be a more effective long-term solution. (Veriwave, a WLAN check seller, has a white paper on best practices for pre- and post-WLAN deployment verification.)
“We’re treating our 11n migration differently,” says David Morton, director of mobile communications strategies at University of Washington in Seattle. “It’s a different architecture & standard, & a different deployment methodology.” As part of the university’s 11n shift, the IT group updated its Wi-Fi deployment guidelines to stipulate details including which access points were being used, what signal levels were expected, & how the APs were mounted, cabled & powered.
An 11n network is not “faster Wi-Fi.” It comes with higher speeds, but also higher expectations. To meet those expectations, IT groups may need to formalize new deployment schemes, or update existing ones.
“I’ve found that 802.11n [radios] have a significantly improved range over 11g, & consistently maintain higher performance at a given distance,” says Sessler of Scripps College. At the same time, lots of IT groups are using the 5 GHz Wi-Fi band for the first time on a large-scale: It has different RF signal propagation characteristics that need to be factored in to an 11n WLAN.
(See also: how’re large-scale, dense Wi-Fi networks affecting radio management issues?)
At University of Washington, the phased 11n upgrade is overseen by a project manager. “A lot of the issues are not technological ones,” Morton says. There’s lots of coordination to be done, & that includes getting the right people on board at the right time, he says.
The best designed WLAN can be crippled because back-end services are overlooked. two examples are RADIUS servers & DHCP servers that for various reasons start fumbling when hit with a floodwater of Wi-Fi requests.
In addition, DHCP servers often are not aware that a Wi-Fi user has disconnected, or may not release IP addresses in a well timed manner. That can lead to the WLAN jogging out of IP addresses.
Wireless management tools, compared to those for wired networks, are still immature. they have an inclination to focus on specific problems, tend to be reactive, and lack an end-to-end point of view, according to IT staff.
“There are cool Wi-Fi tools out there, some specific to designing or troubleshooting a Wi-Fi network,” says University of Washington’s Morton. “But what aren’t readily obtainable are the tools to show us what’s happening on the network, and its impact. they don’t have an overall landscape picture. and a few of that is important, as you look at making changes in the network or investing in it in the future. You need to be able to spot trends as they emerge out of the gate so you’re not caught flat-footed.”
Apart from having the range of necessary tools, & the expertise & expectation to make use of them, one key practice is to collect & use the information gleaned from these tools. Aberdeen Group has found that enterprises with the best performing WLANs are far more likely to foster knowledge-sharing through a centralized storehouse of WLAN information. It’s a key enabler for plenty of of their WLAN best practices, according to Borg.
Best-in-class companies know how their wireless networks are performing & how healthy they are, according to research by Aberdeen Group. They’re more likely to make regular, system use of RF spectrum analyzers, for example, & far more likely to make use of tools for generating custom reports of network information.
At Midland Lutheran College in Fremont, Neb., IT staff ran into persistent problems with some 11n clients whose signal strength would suddenly and repeatedly cycle between very strong and very weak, or simply be unable to connect. The devices had an 802.1x supplicant, for authentication, and generally used the 5 GHz band. The precise cause was never discovered, but the problem was solved when the help desk downloaded updated drivers.
“Based on that experience, our rule of thumb at the help desk is that if a properly configured client is having trouble connecting to the wireless network, then we check for updated drivers,” says Ken Clipperton, Midland’s director of IT.
Training for help desk staff to deal efficiently with client wireless problems, and for IT staff to address them on the network side, is essential to minimizing disruptions and boosting user satisfaction with wireless.
For example, top performing WLANs tend to be those with centralized Wi-Fi management, a wireless intrusion detection/prevention method, bandwidth priorities, & spectrum analyzers for continuous troubleshooting & network fine-tuning. Each of these has a group of associated practices: IT policies & schedules make sure the spectrum analyzers will be used regularly, for example, while site survey applications can use the information to map fluctuations & identify trouble spots. Likewise, intrusion control systems complement regular site-wide assessments of security vulnerabilities, security training & certification for IT staff, & security-awareness schooling for users.
Research by Aberdeen Group has found that enterprises with the best WLAN performance, reliability, & user satisfaction are those that bring together clusters of best practices, to address different parts of the general wireless network. These clusters mutually reinforce each other, improving network reliability & performance. (See: Secrets of the best enterprise Wi-Fi networks revealed)