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Wireless Network Design Basics: Mistakes to Avoid at All Costs [Q&A]

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Wireless Network Design Basics: Mistakes to Avoid at All Costs [Q&A]


High-performing wireless networks stem from a solid foundation of planning, utilizing the right design tools, and having a lot of experience. Without the proper mixture, a lot can go wrong along the way.

So, why do so many wireless network designs fail to deliver? Many IT Managers CIOs and of course, consultants, fall into the same handful of traps that can get in the way of success.

To help you understand how complex designing an enterprise-grade wireless network can actually be, we sat down with our very own Michael McNamee (Mobility Practice Manager and Senior Network Engineer) to discuss the many challenges IT Managers, CIOs and consultants have to navigate as well as several common mistakes they keep making.

SecurEdge Networks: What makes designing a high-performance WLAN so challenging today?

Michael McNamee: The plethora of devices, the applications used and the places people think they need Wi-Fi.

The spectrum of Wi-Fi enabled and dependent devices is so varied that we have to design to accommodate the lowest performing ones.

This typically means that the AP count in an environment will be higher than what we designed for 5-6 years ago when it was mainly laptops. A mobile phone or tablet in order to perform optimally requires a higher signal level and a closer AP proximity than what we have been used to in the past.

Applications are another challenge we have to account for when designing WLANs.

We see everything from high-resolution images and scans that are hundreds of megabytes in size that need to be transmitted over wireless to, for example a Doctors tablet, high definition security camera footage, streaming HD video and now even Wi-Fi calling.

All these applications have specific demands on the WLAN and if we don’t design for them they will not work as the customer requires.

The other challenge is working with customers to get to a place of reasonable expectations. We often are tasked with requirements that state 100% ubiquitous coverage of a campus with Wi-Fi. The expectation comes from a misunderstanding of how Wi-Fi works.

It is their assumption that it is just like cellular and that the signal will permeate everywhere they go on campus. However, this couldn’t be farther from the truth. Wi-Fi uses a spectrum that is in a much shorter wavelength and as such it does not travel as far and cannot pass through trees, buildings, walls and other obstacles as easily as a cell signal does.

SecurEdge Networks: What are the most common design mistakes you’ve run into lately?

Michael McNamee:  We run into a lot of design mistakes with all the different environments we’re asked to go into. The most common ones are again, simply from a misunderstanding of how Wi-Fi works.

For instance, AP placement is a repeating mistake we see a lot. As subsequent generations of Wi-Fi have been introduced we have seen where WLAN upgrades have been deployed with a “swap” process.

This process is where the old AP location has been used to place the new AP. This process does not take into account that newer generations of Wi-Fi technology operate differently than the legacy ones and that the devices in use on Wi-Fi are also different. These changes demand that the layout design be revisited and AP placements must change.

AP orientation is another common mistake we see that has detrimental effects on the WLAN performance.

We run into APs that are wall mounted when the antenna design of the AP is best suited for ceiling mounted. We also see APs installed in warehouses forty plus feet high that use antennas that are designed to be no more than 20 feet off the floor.

Too many APs is yet another disappointing mistake we see often. Again without knowledge of how Wi-Fi works it is often assumed that to fix the problem you just keep adding APs. This practice actually has the reverse effect on WLAN performance and it’s a waste of money to pursue.

SecurEdge Networks: Why are so many people having trouble designing Wireless Networks?

Michael McNamee:  I think the troubles come from multiple sources and it isn’t solely a single issue.

First, I see advice about WLAN design coming from sources that have no knowledge of how Wi-Fi works and how to design. We have seen bid requests from schools created by consultants who write the documents but have no technical certification or experience in network or wireless design.

They direct the schools to make decisions on purchases in the millions of dollars that are made without proper guidance. Money is wasted and systems work sub-optimally to the detriment of the students using them.

Second, I also see recommendations or solutions from manufacturers that defy the laws of physics. These solutions are pushed onto customers with promises of performance beyond what is actually capable in the real world.

Customers then design their WLANs with these products expecting the promised performance only to be disappointed in real world experience.

Third, I think there is the assumption that WLAN design cannot be difficult. Anyone can buy a wireless router or access point, plug it in at home and it just works so how difficult can it be to do that in my office, warehouse, school or hospital?

That assumption is flat out incorrect because it doesn’t take into account all of the differences between each environment, especially when compare them to your home environment.

I tell all of my customers that WLAN design is an art and a science. You need someone schooled in the science and experienced in the art to deliver a finely performing wireless network that will meet and exceed your expectations.

SecurEdge Networks: What’s some advice you would give to someone before their next refresh or new build?

Michael McNamee:  If someone is embarking on a refresh of their aging WLAN I have one piece of advice for them, always engage a WLAN professional who can properly guide you through the process.

Up front there may be some costs that they weren’t planning for but in the long run adding that experienced designer will save time, money and employment. I have stories and references in the dozens that wound up having entire installations ripped out or required expensive fixes after the initial installations to make them work.

It is critical to the success of a WLAN design that it be done by someone with the knowledge and the experience to do it right.

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