Metal shelving, holiday trees, eco-friendly windows and microwave ovens don't sound like they have much in common. But network and Wi-Fi experts might recognize them as objects that can inhibit Wi-Fi signals and disrupt wireless designs.
Many other factors can affect Wi-Fi designs. While some problems might be unavoidable, others can be mitigated with proper planning and best practices. Even a simple walk around the environment could help, said Terry Slattery, principal architect at NetCraftsmen, during a virtual session at Enterprise Connect 2021.
In his session, Slattery provided some practical tips that network and Wi-Fi teams could follow.
1. Determine the business requirements
Before teams begin a Wi-Fi installation or upgrade, they should first figure out the business requirements and goals, Slattery said. This is an important step because some goals conflict with each other. For example, a company might want a large environment to support many video clients all on the 2.4 GHz frequency. These two requirements would be incompatible due to the frequency's lower bandwidth.
A thorough assessment prior to installation can help teams avoid conflicts and fulfill business requirements.
"It's almost a rule of thumb in the industry that you get halfway through a project and you find out there's some new requirement that wasn't previously disclosed," Slattery said. "Take a look for things like that."
2. Conduct pre-installation site surveys
Once a team has established the business requirements and identified which devices they need to support, it's time for a pre-installation site survey. This process includes looking at floor plans, evaluating wall attenuation and measuring radio frequency propagation. Essentially, site surveys indicate the best locations to mount access points (APs) for optimal coverage. They can also highlight problem areas in existing designs.
Terry SlatteryPrincipal architect, NetCraftsmen
Another way to assess Wi-Fi problems is to talk with employees who work near the coverage areas, Slattery said. They'll likely be able to pinpoint spotty coverage, dropouts and signal loss.
"You'll often find they know a lot about what works and what doesn't because they've had to work with it," he said.
3. Take a walk
One of the easiest ways to get a feel for the environment is to walk around the coverage areas.
"There's a surprising amount of Wi-Fi network management you can do simply by walking around," Slattery said. Teams can see how racks and cables are organized, check out if APs are correctly labeled and monitor how clean and maintained the data center is.
Slattery advised teams to pay attention to where and how APs are mounted. Some factors to monitor include the following:
- ceiling-mount APs that are installed on walls;
- directional or patch antennas pointed incorrectly;
- LED indicator patterns on APs;
- AP propogation patterns; and
- co-channel interference with two APs trying to use the same frequency.
This is also when teams can note environmental factors, such as metal shelving, holiday trees, microwave ovens and odd AP locations. Another crucial consideration is to ensure physical access to IT areas is properly secured so nobody can just walk in and access the network.
4. Track AP upgrades
Another best practice is to track the hardware versions and software updates of various wireless devices. Monitor their age, heed vulnerability announcements and don't forget patching, which is a critical security effort that helps prevent ransomware attacks, Slattery said.
In some cases, it could be more cost-effective for teams to upgrade their devices than to redesign the Wi-Fi network. Newer APs will have enhanced capabilities and offer improved distance, features and control, Slattery said.
If teams decide to upgrade their devices, he said to lump upgrades together, so the APs can work together better.
"When you do AP upgrades, don't sprinkle them around across the network," Slattery said. "Pick an area and upgrade all APs there so the same type and model of AP is used in one local area."
5. Find useful management tools
Many teams have network management tools they never use. Products often come with tools, but teams don't take the time to understand how they work. This results in what Slattery called shelfware tools that end up sitting on the shelf. He advised network and Wi-Fi pros to find tools they will use all the time that cater to what the business needs.
Event reporting, such as syslog and Simple Network Management Protocol traps, enable devices to report problems they encounter to the network management system. Teams can then monitor those events and resolve the issues.
Digital experience monitoring (DEM) is another option that combines endpoint monitoring, real user monitoring and synthetic transaction monitoring. With this combination, DEM can monitor an endpoint's application experience and detect problems in clients, the network and applications.
6. Run post-installation site surveys
Finally, teams should run a post-installation site survey to see if they're getting the coverage they expected. Some teams may forgo this step to avoid spending extra money, but Slattery stressed the importance of it.
"Consider it like a sunk cost," he said. "You're going to spend money on a site survey, or you're going to spend money on redesigns and revisions to your Wi-Fi network when it doesn't work the way you expected."