Ten Factors to Consider for Business Grade WLANS

The 802.11n standard is helping to usher in a new era in WLANs in which they are no longer just a “network of convenience” but an integrated dimension of the corporate IT infrastructure providing employees with high performance, ubiquitous wireless access to critical tools and applications. With wireless increasingly becoming many users’ primary means of access to the corporate network, the goal for enterprises is to provide a seamless, consistent user experience regardless of how users connect. The resiliency, performance and scalability of the wireless network must be on par with the wired network.

The reality however, is many enterprises are jumping to adopt the latest WLAN 802.11n standard, without taking into full consideration all implications for what a business grade WLAN network means. While adding 802.11n access points (APs) may address near term bandwidth concerns, it can create problems in the long run in terms of network scalability and performance limitations.

It is crucial to first consider all the implications and create an approach that meets the needs and business goals of your organization. This paper provides a list of the key factors enterprises should consider for creating a business grade WLAN.

1. Applications: Optimized support for business applications

Increasingly, any and all enterprise applications will have to be available wirelessly. In the past, primarily only data applications (email, Intranet/Internet and core business applications such as CRM and ERP) ran over enterprise WLAN networks. Future wireless networks will need to support all enterprise applications, including data, voice, and video. This is no easy task, as different traffic types place different requirements on the WLAN infrastructure. To carry toll quality voice and unified communications, the wireless network must support important attributes and requirements such as quality of service (QoS), Call Admission Control, low jitter and latency, and the ability to seamlessly roam.

Similarly, video traffic places its own set of demands, albeit different ones, on the wireless network. Enterprises need to plan for the rapid growth of video traffic that will result from enterprise tablets hitting the market. Enterprise tablets provide users access to business and communication applications anytime, anywhere within the enterprise. Tablets also offer users high-definition video streaming and real-time video. This can place a much greater load on the wireless network. It is important to understand how your WLAN network handles high bandwidth traffic. For example, how does the network route the traffic? Is it routed back to a centralized controller before being routed through the network? Does this create a bottleneck?

2. Support for Advanced Wireless Applications

It is important that business grade WLANs can support and be optimized for advanced wireless applications such as location tracking, emergency response (E-911) and enhanced security. To date, many of these applications have been confined to certain industries, such as patient/equipment tracking in the healthcare industry; however, more blanketed adoption is expected within the corporate environment.

For example, emergency location identification (E-911) is a key feature sought by institutions migrating from wired Ethernet to Wi-Fi access. Regulators are calling for Wi-Fi networks to offer the same E9-1-1 services as those mandated for wired phones; in particular, to more precisely identify the location of E9-1-1 VoWiFi callers. Because a user with a WiFi mobile handset can be anywhere, emergency responders can have difficulty locating the user. Most E911 tracking systems are ineffective for WLAN systems today, providing little help to responders when users are mobile.

3. Availability

Today’s centralized WLAN architecture is limited in its ability to easily scale. Currently, both wireless application and control traffic is typically sent to the controller before being sent to its ultimate destination. As more wireless users and higher bandwidth applications such as video increase the amount of traffic, the wireless controller can become a bottleneck and compromise performance. The emerging adoption of 802.11n technology, delivering a three- to five-fold increase in data throughput from each access point, only exacerbates this issue. A June 2010 Gartner report highlighted that WLAN equipment will have a useful life of five to seven years, unlike the three to four year life of the early 2000’s. This means it is essential for enterprises to deploy a highly scalable WLAN solution that can meet their needs over the next 5-7 years.

5. Performance

With more applications running over enterprise WLAN networks, it is important to optimize performance and route application traffic on the most optimal, highly resilient, high-capacity path directly from source to destination. Ideally, wireless application traffic should leverage the performance capacity inherent in modern LAN architectures, Ethernet switches should natively route traffic, helping avoid the performance bottleneck inherent in traditional wireless controllers.

6. Security

When it comes to WLANs, security remains a top priority. When surveyed, customers consistently rank WLAN network security among the top three WiFi attributes they value the most. From a security perspective, again a holistic approach is recommended. Security is not just about supporting 802.11i or WPA2. It comprises authentication and encryption, wireless intrusion detection and prevention, and secure network access. Consideration should be given to solutions that can provide end to end security capabilities, with central policy control and provisioning in addition to strong WLAN product security.

7. Network Management/Administration

With wired and wireless networks collapsing into a single unified network, it is imperative there be unified management, where network administers can streamline workflows and reduce the time required to install, configure, maintain and troubleshoot networks. Administrative considerations include:

  • What capabilities are available to reduce network administration?
  • Does the solution support consolidated security/policy enforcement, common management system, self-diagnosing and self-healing capabilities?

8. Architecture

Putting the WLAN on an equal footing with the rest of the network and delivering real-time and/or high bandwidth applications to users wherever they need to roam requires a thorough rethinking of current approaches to WLAN architectures. The bottom line on existing distributed or centralized WLAN architectures is that they all come up short in a number of areas: scalability, performance, efficiency and their ability to support real-time and/or high bandwidth applications. While many vendors may claim ‘unified’ solutions, the reality is many are simply ‘bolt-on’ solutions or offerings that do not address the underlying problems or bottlenecks.

9. Total Cost of Ownership

Cost is obviously a major factor when considering any technological investment. It is important that any strategy consider all costs associated with an implementation. Many current architectural approaches to WLAN require additional expense in both hardware and management resources. Cost considerations might include:

  • Overlay or unified? Overlay costs will include costs associated with both wired and overlay wireless infrastructure. For unified solutions, it is important to probe and understand the extent of unification (for example is it a bolt-on WLAN solution to an existing switch or a true unified solution).
  • Management costs.
  • Improving the LAN infrastructure, buying new power equipment and upgrading clients.
  • Increased operational expenditures associated with the introduction of new technology.

10. Choosing the right vendor

Once you’ve determined to move ahead with an 802.11n implementation, your next consideration is choosing a vendor. This can prove to be the most critical of the decisions. There are a wealth of solutions to choose from, all with their own individual strengths and promises to solve every 802.11n challenge. Assessing the technical merits of the various offerings to ensure they will meet your needs is certainly a key step but, given the critical role this network will play in your business, a comprehensive evaluation of the end-to-end capabilities each vendor can deliver is warranted.

Considerations may include:

  • What is the vendor’s strategy for wired/wireless integration? Can the vendor offer this capability or do they need to rely on partnerships?
  • Which wireless network services can the vendor offer? Voice, video, location tracking, etc.?
  • Can the vendor offer an end-to-end solution comprising converged wired/wireless infrastructure, handsets, services, etc.?
  • Is the vendor’s solution the optimum solution to get your business to where it needs to be three to five years from now?

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