WLAN Vendor Selection Criteria - What Matters Most?

Last month I ran a short 1-question survey, asking readers to rate the importance of various factors when selecting a wireless LAN vendor. I received 95 responses, which was pretty good turn-out for an informal survey on my little corner of the blogosphere. Thank you to all that responded to the survey!

The survey results are in, and here are the findings.

Note - This was NOT a scientific survey. These results only indicate the importance of criteria based on the survey respondents.

Survey Question:
What are the most important factors that influence wireless LAN vendor selection?

Rating Levels:
  1. Not Considered
  2. Low
  3. Average
  4. High
  5. Critical
Survey Results
Survey responses revealed the following average ratings for each factor:

Survey Results - Importance of Various Factors When Selecting a WLAN Vendor
(click to enlarge)

Detailed response breakdown:

Survey Results - Complete Response Breakdown
(Click to Enlarge)

The Most Important Criteria
  • Product Quality Assurance & Stability scored the highest, with an average rating of 4.24. Additionally, this factor received the most "Critical" rating accounting for 40% of all responses for this item. Clearly customers want bug-free code and network stability from their vendor of choice. Vendors should not lose focus on product quality in order to speed time-to-market, especially if that means sacrificing development, code review, QA testing, or customer trials (alpha / beta).

  • Vendor Technical Expertise also scored really high, with an average rating of 4.16. This factor received over 83% of responses for either "High" or "Critical" importance. This points to a strong need to leverage professional services for WLAN installations. Given the relative complexity of deploying high-performing wireless networks, the growing demand for Wi-Fi networks, and the explosive growth of mobile devices, this is not surprising. Many customers are not equipped with the resources to handle these projects and need to lean on vendors, partners, and managed service providers for technical Wi-Fi expertise. Expect continued substantial compound annual growth rate (CAGR) for professional services in the industry.

  • Solution Scalability is important for customers as networks grow. Based on the response breakout, solution scalability appears to be applicable to more customers than either Product Quality Assurance & Stability or Vendor Technical Expertise, having over 88% of responses rated "High" or "Critical". However, customers concerned about QA/stability and vendor expertise rated those as "Critical" more often than scalability. There is no doubt that the WLAN industry is seeing tremendous growth in product shipments since the release of 802.11n, and despite the recent economic recession. Customers are expanding networks, adding coverage and capacity, and require solutions that can handle increasingly large network deployments effectively.

  • Support Response Time & Escalation are also highly important, with over 50% of responses rated as "High" and 27% as "Critical". Customers require qualified vendor support and rapid escalation and remediation of issues to minimize network disruptions. Just as many organizations are relying on outside expertise for professional services during network design and installation phases, similar expertise is required for post-sales support and incident response.

  • Other notable important items include:

    • Vendors should provide easy access to Product Documentation. Vendors should not require current support contracts, or make customers create an account on the website to access documentation. By doing this, vendors make it difficult for customers to be self-sufficient from a support perspective, place roadblocks and barriers in front of valuable training resources, increase vendor support costs, and limit publicly available information that potential future customers could use to become more familiar with your products. Vendors only hurt their own existing customers and future product sales by doing this (or they have something to hide that they don't want competitors to see, which they will eventually anyways).

    • A solid Management Platform will include features to monitor, configure, report and alert on all features within the network products. Vendors need to place appropriate resources into network management systems to ensure customers are able to effectively use and manage their products without requiring advanced technical skill sets. Often times, organizations utilize experts for initial deployment, then turn over day-to-day management and support to less experienced or less specialized teams (provisioning, help desk, etc.). Vendors should enable these teams to mange the network in an easy-to-use fashion that is intuitive and requires a minimal learning curve.

    • Hardware and Software Maintenance Structures are important for customers as they continue to get more sophisticated in TCO analysis and look for ways to minimize Operational Expenses (OpEx) over the lifetime of the product deployment. Vendors will need to offer solid value propositions for hardware and software warranty policies or face significant push-back from customers. This has already been reflected in the industry as multiple vendors are now decoupling hardware from software maintenance contracts, offering customers the flexibility to choose an equipment sparing and support strategy that meets their needs. Expect increased scrutiny of software maintenance structures (including licensing) as customers look to simplify financial analysis and avoid getting nickel and dimed for table-stakes features or support that may be deemed unnecessary.

    • Wireless network Architecture Approaches are gaining increasing visibility within the industry, as small vendors hammer the drum on controller-less architectures and big vendors continue to develop distributed solutions to handle increasing traffic loads with 802.11n, 802.11ac, and 802.11ad which are quickly complicating current controller-based models. Increased importance on this topic is expected as network loads and utilization continue to increase and as industry analysts continue to highlight the diverging approaches within the industry. This will be a make-or-break decision point for many customers, especially customers with highly distributed environments.
Least Important Criteria
  • Maintaining a Single Vendor Network was the least important factor for most respondents, with 10% rating it "Not Considered" and 26% rating it "Low". However, a small contingent of respondents do factor this into their decision process with 26% rating it "High". Based on these two opposing viewpoints this is a divisive subject with large variability between customers. Clearly there are two camps of thought on this topic. This leads me to believe that the single vendor mantra may hold more weight when specific requirements must be met or in environments where a clear value proposition exists. This value could stem from many different points, including process efficiencies, integration capabilities, reduced duplication of effort to support multiple products with varying capabilities, or reduced workload training and supporting a complex environment, etc. However, for customers without a clear requirement or value proposition, this factor holds little weight.

  • Vendor Market Share and OEM Relationships are not critical to the vendor selection decision. This highlights a great opportunity for smaller vendors to increase customer base through both overall market expansion as well as in direct competitive sourcing events. This also highlights the highly competitive nature of the Wi-Fi market today and the need for continuous improvement by all vendors to stay relevant.
Other Trends and Implications
First, vendor RF and security feature differentiation are still a significant factors in the WLAN industry. However, customers appear more willing to accept vendor roadmaps for feature parity rather than jumping to a competitor to acquire a single innovative feature. Customers are evaluating complete solutions, and barring a "killer" feature, will give vendors time to develop comparable features. With most vendors utilizing merchant silicon, time to market for most features are now relatively quick based on software development timelines. Vendors that can differentiate based on fundamental architecture approaches or hardware capabilities will stand to gain more competitive advantage than vendors focusing on software feature innovation.

Second, advanced wireless services such as Real-Time Location Services (RTLS), Guest Wi-Fi (hotspots, partner access), and wireless intrusion prevention services (WIPS) are of increasing relevance to customers as IT departments move beyond providing basic network connectivity and evolve into more of a service organization. Vendors must either dedicate resources to develop integrated value-add wireless services and capabilities, or establish over-the-top capabilities through strong ties with 3rd party best-of-breed solutions including strong systems integration to present a unified and cohesive platform for the customer.

Finally, the need for quality Wi-Fi training has never been more apparent. Heavy reliance by many organizations on external professional services highlights the demand for qualified Wi-Fi expertise and an insufficient number of experts available in the industry. If you're looking for quality training for yourself or your staff, check out my Wi-Fi Training Resources page.

Revolution or Evolution? - Andrew's Take
Although most vendor announcements, press releases, and industry analysis focuses on the latest wireless features, many customers still make decisions based on fundamental "critical factors" that directly impact their ability to conduct business. Vendors should ensure that innovation does not come at the cost of stability, and should focus heavily on professional services as customers require help to deploy next-generation wireless networks. This is a time of tremendous growth, competition, and innovation within the Wi-Fi industry. Technical Wi-Fi skill sets are in high demand, and the industry collectively needs more qualified experts to meet this demand. When the global economy stumbled through the recession, Wi-Fi kept going relatively strong. As the economy slowly emerges, this industry is set to explode! Small vendors will be growing rapidly, trying to sell customers on different architectural approaches and feature innovation. Large vendors will be expanding customer bases through established sales channels and selling advanced professional services. Customers will be buying, buying, buying, like crazy.

Customers - do you have well-defined requirements?
Vendors - do you have an appropriate market strategy to sell customers on your solutions?

I welcome reader feedback and thoughts? Do these results match your expectations? Are any important criteria missing that you would consider for vendor selection?