Wi-Fi is a critical resource to businesses of all sizes and types. It is no longer the exclusive domain of large enterprises or home networks. Whether it is the local coffee shop, retail store or five-person start-up, the reliability of Wi-Fi connectivity is an important success factor. At the same time, the challenges in delivering consistent Wi-Fi performance and availability continue to grow. These include technical factors, such as increased usage driving congestion, as well as organizational factors, like a lack of expertise or resources in the business to manage Wi-Fi. Businesses have a few options to consider when trying to solve the Wi-Fi challenge.
"Effective management of congestion is the key to delivering a good quality of experience"
First are large scale and expensive controller-based systems. These systems designed and priced for large enterprises, require expertise to install and support and therefore are not a good fit for the small to medium business (SMB) market. To fill the void, many Wi-Fi manufactures are delivering alternative, low-cost, cloud-managed Wi-Fi solutions instead, as these products cost less, auto-configure and attempt to simplify the management of Wi-Fi. But none the less, someone in the enterprise is expected to monitor the system and act when the Wi-Fi equipment is unable to automatically solve issues. In the end, just buying fancy or cloud-based equipment that provides a degree of optimization is not enough to deliver reliable Wi-Fi service for your business. To truly solve the problem, it is imperative to first understand what causes Wi-Fi to fail.
The popularity of Wi-Fi is great for bringing down the cost of Wi-Fi equipment and increasing the number and diversity of products which connect using Wi-Fi. However, it is a double-edged sword, placing a huge demand on the shared airwaves used to deliver Wi-Fi connectivity. When congestion is high, the speed delivered to an individual device dramatically reduces, causing users to claim the Wi-Fi is broken. It’s not “broken”, in fact it’s behaving as designed, sharing the airwaves fairly among all users in that location—but that matters not when your customers give you a bad Yelp review due to “broken” Wi-Fi. Effective management of congestion is the key to delivering a good quality of experience.
The second major challenge is dealing with the different types of devices connecting to the Wi-Fi network and in turn, the different types of applications those devices are using over Wi-Fi. Older devices often behave poorly, which can bring down the performance for everyone else connected to the Wi-Fi. Additionally, Wi-Fi was designed as a fair-share system with limited application specific quality of service. This too can lead to a poor user experience as the needs of voice services are very different than video.
Beyond capacity constraints and managing devices and applications, where the business needs to have Wi-Fi connectivity is different than ten years ago. As Wi-Fi has become critical business infrastructure ubiquitous coverage is an absolute must. It is not enough to have good service in parts of the building—it needs to be everywhere and in many cases, outside as well as inside. While a simple solution is to add more Wi-Fi access points (APs), if this is not managed well, a multi-AP system will bring down performance and increase complexity.
The good news is that techniques exist that can deal effectively with the challenges of congestion, device and application diversity and coverage. The first is automated radio resource management (RRM). RRM is not a new concept—in fact, it is a core feature of large-scale enterprise Wi-Fi controllers. It has however, generally been only the domain of those systems. Many of the lower-cost, cloud-based solutions assume nothing more than basic RRM is needed for a business that does not see the need for a controller. So, what is RRM? As the name belies it is a series of algorithms that ensure the Wi-Fi router is using the best portion of unlicensed spectrum available to deliver service to each of the devices connected to it. That includes channel management—consistently monitoring the congestion on a specific channel and changing channels as appropriate to find the cleanest portion of spectrum. It also includes band steering—moving devices to either 5 GHz or 2.4 GHz based on the type of device, service and congestion. Finally, newer standards and chip implementations are enabling a concept termed airtime prioritization. Airtime prioritization allows policy to be implemented that better tunes Wi-Fi usage for specific applications, users or networks (e.g. priority to private network vs. guest network). The application of these techniques needs to be done automatically and in conjunction with one another to deliver a consistent high-performance experience.
RRM aims to solve the congestion challenge, delivering more capacity, but does nothing to extend coverage. The addition of more Wi-Fi APs into the business network will improve coverage, but requires more advanced software to do so successfully. The system needs to ensure Wi-Fi devices are connected to the best AP in the multi-AP system. This is done using client steering, which considers the type of device, its proximity to each Wi-Fi AP in the system and the load on each Wi-Fi AP in the system. By moving devices to the best Wi-Fi AP to serve it in the system, an intelligent steering algorithm increases the performance for all devices in the network. Finally, as the number of APs in a system increases the ability to automatically configure and heal from faults becomes more important. As mentioned, most businesses lack the expertise or budget for a dedicated IT team for its Wi-Fi network, therefore automating as much of the management as possible is critical to delivering Wi-Fi assurance.
As the criticality of Wi-Fi for businesses increases and the overall usage of Wi-Fi goes up, the need for automated systems to ensure reliable, high-performance Wi-Fi in turn intensifies. Some of these capabilities exist today, but the current market dichotomy needs to change to meet the disparate needs of enterprises. Being stuck choosing between either a system that is too big and complex for the business or a system that is too simplistic and then having the self-manage is insufficient. The good news is that there is movement in the right direction both from the start-up community and large internet service providers. Just like many traditionally site specific applications have moved to an “as a service” model (like e-mail, file sharing, etc.), so too does Wi-Fi need to make the transition. Enterprises need the ability to purchase “Wi-Fi as a service” that comes with an automated tool set as well as people monitoring and managing the Wi-Fi on its behalf allowing the business to focus on what it does best.