Breathe New Life into Your WLAN

New technologies improve enterprise WLAN performance and prepare Wi-Fi networks for the demands of the Internet of Things future.

By Julie Knudson | Posted Jun 18, 2015
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WLANs are reaching maturity after quietly giving users steadily improving wireless access for years. But the pace of technological innovation is leaving some WLANs a little behind the times. New innovations promise to get enterprise Wi-Fi back up to speed through improved wireless performance, and administrators who adjust their approach to equipment and network design methodologies can take advantage of greater device densities and faster Wi-Fi speeds.

WLANs beginning to show their age

Though some enterprises haven’t yet acknowledged the new landscape, the very role the WLAN plays has evolved. “What you run into from an architectural perspective is that original WLANs were designed more as an overlay network,” said Bruce Miller, vice president of product marketing at Xirrus. “They augmented the wired network with a hotspot or a network-of-convenience type of approach.” That’s all changed. Employees and other users today expect Wi-Fi connectivity nearly everywhere. In elevators, in stairwells, even outside. “Based on that, you need to put in a lot more access points. You need to have a lot more density, and the overlay approach doesn’t really work as well anymore,” Miller said.

In addition, an increasing number of devices don’t even have Ethernet ports, meaning workers can no longer leverage the wired network as a backup if Wi-Fi isn’t available. To ensure WLANs remain useful, administrators should view them as primary networks, rather than as supplements to traditional hardwired connectivity.

One big mistake some enterprises make when it comes to administering existing WLANs is adhering to design standards that focus on 2.4 GHz rather than 5 GHz. The latest technologies, such as 802.11ac, operate on the 5 GHz frequency, which offers reduced distance but greater density. “If a customer has designed for 2.4 GHz in terms of where they place APs [access points], it can lead to a lot of coverage holes for clients,” said Christian Gilby, director of product marketing at Aruba Networks. Though the lower spectrum was the de facto standard in years past, clinging to its design methodology will hinder the performance of today’s wireless networks.

Abby Strong, director of product marketing at Aerohive Networks, said it’s still all too common for enterprises to use legacy authentication methods (if they use any authentication protocols at all—a scary prospect in its own right). Whether an administrator has chosen WEP or WPA, she said, “both of those limit the wireless’s ability to run at its full speed, because they use legacy authentication protocols.” Users are likely to wonder why the network is so slow when their new client is so fast. And while it’s possible the problem is related to the installed coverage model—where there just isn’t enough capacity for the Wi-Fi—outdated security choices could contribute to lackluster wireless performance. “Legacy authentication protocols are much slower,” Strong said.

Making better wireless networking decisions now

As administrators work to bring older WLANs up to current standards, they must avoid short-sighted equipment choices, like buying more APs than are effective for the space. “Pretty soon you start to get a huge number of devices in one place, and it actually causes a lot of interference problems,” Miller said. “You can’t just jam 10 access points into a room and expect it to work.” If you find yourself turning the radios off so they don’t interfere with each other, you may have an overabundance of APs. Access points that include more radios may be a more scalable solution for environments at max AP density.

Many of the WLAN architectures of yore included a controller that centralized management and configuration of device connections. It can be difficult to get away from that structure, but now is the time to embrace a more distributed methodology. “The controller models today are pretty long in the tooth at this point,” Strong said. Controller-less alternatives “put the controller up in the cloud, or they at least push some of that functionality down to the access points,” she explained. This eliminates an unnecessary single point of failure and also does away with a potential performance-sapping bottleneck. “Every time you want to make a complex decision, the controller-based model still needs that controller in the mix somewhere,” Strong said, “whereas with the distributed model, we’re actually making those decisions in real time, right at the edge, based on what’s happening on the network at that time.”

Updating your WLAN with an eye on the future

Moving forward, one consideration administrators may need to prioritize is capacity. “You have to start thinking about having a whole lot of low-powered devices connected to the wireless network,” Strong said. Enterprises don’t necessarily need to increase their backhaul bandwidth to cope, but they should be sure they’re ready to accommodate many devices that are more focused on their battery life or their user experience than having the best possible Wi-Fi chip connected. “Look for devices that have high-powered radios in them,” Strong suggested, adding that these types of radios aren’t just for transmitting. “When you put a high-powered radio in, it also allows you to listen a lot better, so your receive sensitivity is much higher.”

Miller said that multi-radio architectures—those devices that go beyond a two-radio axis point—will be key in the future. “Wi-Fi has historically dealt with two-radio products that share those radios across all the users. We believe multi-radio products that scale more similarly to a switched architecture are a much better way to scale.” Taking those scenarios, where single rooms have a slew of APs serving them, Miller said that two eight-radio access points would provide a better foundation for growth. In addition, the approach “obviously saves a lot on installation and cabling.”

For enterprises with lean resources, Gilby said new tools can help administrators bring their WLANs into the modern age without breaking the bank. “Not everybody has the budget to go and do a full refresh across their network,” he explained. Monitoring platforms have the ability to produce a report that reflects the load on both legacy and newer APs. “It allows the customer to then say, ‘I don’t have the budget to go and do a rip and replace of everything. Let me target the top areas in my deployment and upgrade those areas of the network first.’” Enterprises can effectively right-size their network through a phased upgrade and begin to meet the capacity challenges in certain areas of the network.

The Internet of Things impact on WLAN requirements

With the growth of IoT and its impact on the sort of traffic flows existing WLANs will need to support in the near future, Strong said additional considerations will drive how enterprises manage wireless resources. “As administrators are planning out their network, they should not assume that all of those things that are popping up—and even some of the newer consumer devices—will always be able to support 802.1x or username- and password-based authentication.” Instead, enterprises will want to investigate ways to secure a wider variety of connected devices.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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