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

Eric Camulli, VP of Marketing for 7signal | May 20, 2014
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.

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.

 

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