How to take the mystery out of Wi-Fi using performance management tools

Many IT departments still treat Wi-Fi like a second-class infrastructure asset despite the cultural shift toward mobility.

This vendor-written tech primer has been edited by Network World to eliminate product promotion, but readers should note it will likely favor the submitter's approach.

Many IT departments still treat Wi-Fi like a second-class infrastructure asset despite the cultural shift toward mobility. Perhaps the reluctance to embrace Wi-Fi with open arms is due to a lack of visibility. After all, you can't see it, therefore, it's difficult for most people to gauge, manage and control.  But with the emergence of Wi-Fi performance management systems, Wi-Fi no longer has to remain a mystery.

Wi-Fi today faces issues with density, capacity and coverage, especially in places where the networks are increasingly mission critical, like at hospitals, enterprise campuses and institutions of higher learning. If your Wi-Fi network is more than five years old then it likely wasn't built to stand up to these challenges, causing you major headaches.

The traditional approach to managing Wi-Fi networks and solving problems has been to use a troubleshooting tool, such as a speed tester or spectrum analyzer, and walk to the area in question in an attempt to find and fix the issue. However, root cause is rarely discovered and sometimes the problem has even disappeared by the time you get there, which gets aggravating.

Why does Wi-Fi seem to be so fickle? How can it work well one day and be lousy the next? What forces and factors contribute to reliable, high-performance Wi-Fi? With today's walkaround tools, answers to these questions remain largely a mystery because they only capture a snapshot in time. They do not track and trend performance in a way that allows you to catch performance issues in the act of disrupting worker productivity.

A system of performance management

Performance management systems have existed for wired networks for years. Think of OpenView or SolarWinds. However, WLAN performance management has been ad hoc with a variety of instruments and tools kept in drawers and on shelves. But wireless networks are dynamic systems with many components that must coexist harmoniously to achieve the goals of reliability and high performance.

With so many environmental factors and moving parts, this balance can be easily upset, causing both random and chronic issues for clients depending on the network to successfully do their jobs. And we fail to understand what we cannot see, therefore the tendency is to be reactive. To become proactive, and begin the cycle of efficiency, we need to visualize and bring to life the wireless ecosystem. Therefore, a Wi-Fi performance management system is required that consists of three elements: active testing, passive testing and Wi-Fi analytics.

Active tests exercise the network like a client and take continuous measurements that tell us what the network is capable of in terms of performance. It's equivalent to 24-hour-a-day user experience testing and it captures data relating to client throughput, packet loss, latency and jitter on VoIP calls. These metrics, as well as others, tell the real story about the worker experience, whereas traditional systems and controllers simply tell you the lights are green and that people are connecting. This inside-out approach is antiquated because it is not proactive or adequately responsive to the growing needs of wireless users.

Passive tests monitor and measure all RF activity in the environment to tell us if clients can actually take advantage of the performance capabilities as measured by the active testing. Passive tests track channel usage, retransmission rates, data connection rates and environmental interference to gain a complete and accurate picture of how client devices and wireless access points all interact with each other and the environment in which they operate. The two sets of tests form the comprehensive data set that is required to fully understand the behavior of the network.  

The data is all brought to life through Wi-Fi analytics, which allow you to visualize your network in a way that provides actionable intelligence for finding and fixing the root cause of the Wi-Fi performance issues that are inhibiting worker productivity and operational efficiency. Because such systems track and trend performance over time and allow you to set service level targets for performance, you can now be proactive in identifying issues before they actually hamper the performance of clients on your network.  

No longer are you reacting to complaints, but rather you are truly managing the Wi-Fi network like the important and strategic asset it is. Trending charts allow you to isolate and correlate changes in the environment to changes in performance and reliability. Service level dashboards tell you when throughput or jitter begin to slip out of compliance. Performance SLAs may be set for particular buildings, areas or SSIDs and this allows you to centrally monitor, alert, investigate and resolve issues prior to complaints about lost productivity and without the need to dispatch resources.

The Wi-Fi Performance Cycle

As a result of putting in place a system of performance management, you have created a Wi-Fi performance cycle that assures ongoing reliability. The performance cycle begins with continuous measurements. The metrics generated are benchmarked and compared against service level targets for performance. An analysis of the data brings to light wireless weak spots that were never visible in the past. This allows you to intelligently optimize your network based on data, not anecdotes, complaints or theories.

Changes made to clients, access points or the environment can all be verified through the continuous measurements taken within the system. This ongoing verification provides network assurance, giving you confidence in the exact capabilities and limitations of your network and also offers insights into future demand planning.

A Wi-Fi performance management system takes the mystery out of managing Wi-Fi networks. With an overlay of Wi-Fi sensors in the ratio of one sensor to every six to eight access points, it affords you the proactive protection you need for mission critical SaaS applications that need access over Wi-Fi. It allows you to see how clients are actually experiencing the network by continually measuring throughput, latency and jitter, and it lets network engineers proactively detect and correct issues before anybody notices or complains. Finally, it ensures that wireless devices and the people who use them remain productive, saving your organization both time and money.

Tags Wi-FiNetworkingwirelessanti-malwareWLANs / Wi-Fi

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