Picking the "Right" Wi-Fi Solution for Your Organization

How should an engineer or IT manager go about picking a Wi-Fi network solution? This can be a complex question to answer and involves evaluating products between multiple vendors or even separate products within one vendor's offering when they offer multiple distinct product lines.

Unfortunately, many customers, partners, and professionals in our industry tend to focus a majority of their time on one factor: speed. My friend Bradley Chambers summed up the inadequacy of speed tests recently when he wrote about his thoughts on Wi-Fi bake-offs, whereby a customer solely focuses on speed tests to pick a Wi-Fi solution:
One of the trends I've been noticing among schools is that they are holding "bake-offs" in order to pick their new WiFi vendor. I am concerned that the majority of these tests revolve around speed. Speed is important, but it's just part of the solution. The speed only test also ignores real world situations.
I agree that it's not all about speed. Wi-Fi chipsets and hardware have come a long way since the early days. It's increasingly hard to differentiate on hardware and speed, as all enterprise Wi-Fi products perform very similarly. The real differentiation and value of Wi-Fi solutions over the next few years will revolve around software innovation. Today, these include mobile device onboarding, dynamic security, location tracking, presence, big data and analytics. Tomorrow, who knows. But you can be assured that software solutions sitting on-top of an intelligent network will be the driving force for Wi-Fi's second-wind, leading to significant market growth over the next 3-5 years.

Bear with me while I ramble on about what I consider the most important aspects to focus on when selecting a Wi-Fi solution. Let me be very clear in saying that this is NOT a comprehensive list -rather it is simply a high-level starting point so you can remain focused on what's most important. Engineers tend to relish the details, writing RFPs that list hundreds of features and get into the minutiae of Wi-Fi technical specifications. That's great, however the Wi-Fi solution must be properly framed in the light of what you're trying to accomplish as an organization and understanding what role mobility plays and how the Wi-Fi network contributes to those broader objectives.

[begin rant] For instance, don't choose a Wi-Fi solution because it's 2% faster than a competing product but it doesn't offer the key feature your business really needs. That's a recipe for disaster! Does that 2% speed bump really matter when management or your business partners can't use the solution in the way they need to?  This underscores a deeper trend that many IT organizations fall into, where they try to force technical solutions into place that don't fundamentally meet organizational needs. This could be due to the familiarity they have with a certain vendor's products, fear of change, or lack of desire to continue learning new and different skills. I've seen too many IT organizations and individual engineers be so head-down into the technology that they fail to lookup to try to understand the solutions that the business is asking for and take the time and effort to research the right technical product fit. It's laziness, pure and simple. I challenge these types of engineers to be better than that! [end rant]

Now that I'm off my soapbox, here is how I recommend you go about picking a Wi-Fi solution:

1.) Suitability - What are the critical features and functionality for your business or environment?
Vendors have tons of features, but only a few are likely to be really critical for YOU! Identify those capabilities that will really enable your WLAN to do what you need it to do. For example: retailers need great guest / social WiFi and analytics; K-12 education needs Bonjour and simplicity; healthcare needs great voice service and location tracking; warehousing needs fast roaming and super high availability; Universities need great BYOD workflow and policies and high density. These are obviously generalizations, but you get my point. Identify the vendor and product that is the best fit for your needs! This comes first, ALWAYS!

2.) Simplicity - How complex (or simplified) is the solution?
When designing the network, how complex is network integration? Do you need an expert to design redundancy, failover, traffic flow optimization, tunneling, security and separation between user and device roles. When problems do arise, which they will with every vendor, how easy is it to diagnose where the problem lies and how to correct it? Or do you need to pay a contractor or VAR to come out and figure it out. Vendors might offer similar capabilities, but how have they built their product to do so? There are a lot of differences under the hood that can make your life easier, or more difficult, which cannot easily be identified through RFP check-boxes. Take the time to dig-in to the solution offerings you are evaluating and run through some sample scenarios that you face everyday. Also try to identify how the solution interacts with the larger network and application environment and how it might be affected by outside influences.

3.) Stability - What is the vendor's (or product line's) track-record for hardware and software stability?
How much QA goes into code releases? Does the vendor expect customers to be beta testers to find bugs? How does the vendor design for high availability and how complex is the setup? How many pieces are part of the architecture that all need to be designed for HA? Does the vendor include functionality inside the WLAN or do they require more servers or appliances to integrate which all require separate design for HA? If a failure does occur, what is the potential scope of impact? Is it one AP, one location, or potentially your entire environment? Does the vendor have a strategy for minimizing the scope of impact? What holes exist in that strategy?

4.) Strategy - What confidence do you have in the vendor's strategy?
How do vendors approach product development? Are they experts in your industry, do they have thought-leaders that really take the time and effort to understand your business problems, where your market is going (not their market), and what solutions will enable customers of your type to succeed? In essence, do they have the customer's needs in mind, or are they twisting the current buzzword soup of the day to match their existing product offerings? There is a big difference! I look for vendors that really understand what I'm trying to accomplish and have tailored product offerings to meet those needs.

5.) Sticker Price - What value do you place on the solution that meets your needs?
Make sure the vendor you choose meets the criteria listed above for suitability, simplicity, stability, and strategy... THEN work on negotiating a price that works for you! Many IT organizations are ill-equipped to evaluate the true value that technology solutions have in their organization due to the fact that they don't adequately understand the impact to the business. IT solutions are increasingly enabling new business services that are required to compete and succeed through market transitions (just take retail and healthcare as two shining examples of this today). Viewing IT spend as an expense-center just doesn't cut it anymore. More often than not, the business teams hold the purse strings and are in a much better position to identify the value IT solutions bring and calculate true ROI. Don't place pricing first, otherwise you could easily end up wasting money on a solution that doesn't meet your needs. If that happens, any amount of money spent is wasted, even if its cheaper than other solutions. You'll end up being dissatisfied and ripping and replacing with another solution.

So, just remember The 5 S's for Evaluating Wi-Fi Solutions:
  1. Suitability
  2. Simplicity
  3. Stability
  4. Strategy
  5. Sticker Price