To paraphrase Dwight D. Eisenhower: Plans might be useless, but planning is indispensable. While Eisenhower referred specifically to battle preparations, the same could be said about wireless network planning.
Without proper planning, network teams may inadvertently bypass essential organizational requirements, cause inefficient processes, and waste valuable money and time. Teams can start the planning process by familiarizing themselves with business objectives, marketing initiatives, and allocated budget and resources, according to Cherie Martin, senior solutions marketing manager at Aruba Networks.
"You can't plan for everything, but the planning will put you in a better space," Martin said.
What is wireless network planning?
Wireless network planning is the process of strategizing and architecting a wireless network design that provides adequate coverage, security and capacity. In this process, network engineers evaluate existing network infrastructure, floor plans, application and network performance, capacity requirements and many other factors.
This evaluation stage helps network pros understand where to place access points (APs), identify which wireless technologies and equipment to implement -- such as Wi-Fi, cellular, wireless mesh networks, gateways and wireless routers -- and pinpoint potential problems in the network.
How to start wireless network planning and design
While enterprises have varying wireless requirements to meet business needs, the best practices for wireless network planning remain consistent. Below are nine main areas network teams should consider when starting the wireless planning process.
The first, somewhat obvious phase in wireless network planning is to define where the organization needs coverage. Coverage refers to the geographic location that receives wireless access. Organizations with larger or distributed locations have more extensive coverage requirements than those with smaller or localized sites.
In this step, network teams look into geographical considerations, like site locations, but also assess environmental and seasonal factors, Martin said. For example, teams should evaluate the network during peak business times, like holidays or special events, to determine ideal performance requirements throughout the year.
Teams should also pay attention to difficult coverage areas that might have thick walls, metal environments, refrigeration or other factors that could interfere with radio frequency (RF) and APs.
Capacity refers to how much traffic a wireless network can support, considering speeds, latency and bottlenecks. High-capacity environments, such as stadiums or concert venues, must support many users at once, often with varying types of wireless devices.
During this step, network teams estimate their organizations' expected growth, find out how many users are currently on the network and approximate how many might join in the near future. This process helps network teams determine the types of clients the wireless network needs to support, bandwidth expectations, how many APs they need to deploy and necessary data rates.
Teams shouldn't hesitate to ask about the possibility of any business acquisitions that could add new network users. This phase is also when teams should start looking into the types of applications the network needs to support now and in the next few years, Martin said.
The third phase is to dive deeper into the organization's application requirements. Network teams should do their best to ensure the network is aligned with business priorities, including mission-critical applications and workflows.
Application factors include the following:
- Is the application hosted on premises or in a cloud environment?
- Is it a voice or video application that requires low latency?
- Is it a nonwork-related application, like Netflix or YouTube?
- How do in-office and remote workers access the application?
These considerations also include mobile support, workforce policy updates, marketing initiatives and guest Wi-Fi access, Martin said. Also, teams shouldn't forget to evaluate data-heavy and bandwidth-intensive applications, like IoT and video streaming, and plan capacity and policies accordingly.
Although security requirements and issues can be difficult to predict, organizations benefit when teams take steps to secure the wireless network, Martin said. During this phase, teams look into security features, like wireless intrusion prevention and detection, two-factor authentication, role-based access and firewalls.
This planning phase includes the following steps:
- Assess wireless security protocols, like Wired Equivalent Privacy and the various versions of Wi-Fi Protected Access;.
- Configure rigorous security policies for authenticated users, guests and applications.
- Create strong password and multifactor authentication strategies.
- Run AP software updates.
Additionally, teams should stay updated about the various types of wireless attacks, such as war driving, evil twin and wireless hijacking. For compliance considerations, Martin said some wireless systems automatically log data for audits to help minimize manual records or analysis.
The fifth phase in wireless network planning is to simplify, specifically when looking into management. Network teams benefit from automation that assists with troubleshooting and reduces time spent on menial, routine management tasks.
Martin advised teams to evaluate management systems that offer GUIs with easy navigation and provide granular information about APs, rogue devices and guest Wi-Fi registration, among other considerations.
IT teams should next focus on how to support the business in case something goes wrong with the network. In this phase, teams evaluate backup options, AP and path failover, high availability, controller configuration, power and other factors that might be affected in a network outage or event.
Martin also advised teams to determine how to ensure redundancy for cloud connectivity and edge devices, in addition to traditional facility components.
"Most of the problems you see with overall network connectivity usually have to do with WAN variability -- the connection between the cloud and APs, edge, switches and gateways," she added.
7. Network integration
This phase of wireless network planning helps teams pinpoint end-to-end network visibility and integration needs. For example, next-generation APs that support the Wi-Fi standard, 802.11ax, require 60 kilowatts of power, but only newer Power over Ethernet (PoE) standards support that wattage.
As such, teams should pay attention to how PoE and scalability work with the network they're building. Other network integration factors include network reliability, performance, access network uplinks and pipe capacity.
The next step is to further examine the management system. Consider how a network management platform handles all the different network components, such as APs, switches and software-defined WAN management, Martin said. The type of management a team chooses depends on the size of the organization. Smaller organizations can work with AP clusters that offer lower management overheads, while larger organizations benefit from cloud-based management that provides better scalability and redundancy.
9. Site survey
Another important step in wireless planning is to conduct a site survey. Wireless site surveys differ in type, with predictive, passive and active inspections available as hardware or software planning tools.
Teams can run a predictive site survey prior to creating a wireless design or if they're moving to new locations. A passive site survey helps teams collect information about a site after they install equipment. An active site survey analyzes the wireless network in full operation. Each survey type helps organizations determine AP position, RF, capacity, quality of service, potential interference and other metrics.
Wireless network planning is an invaluable process when network teams are designing a wireless network. By evaluating factors like capacity, coverage, application requirements, security and encryption, simplicity, redundancy, integration, management and site surveys, teams can create a wireless design that best supports their businesses, employees and customers.