Mind The Gap in Your WLAN Design

Over the past few years I've had the opportunity to travel for work, a lot. I'm always navigating airports large and small, and trekking out and about around urban areas finding my way from airport to hotel to meeting venue or just plain exploring the local scene in my free time. I've got a bit of an "adventure seeker" flair as well, so sometimes I just head out on my own without a map, guide, or itinerary just to soak up the local culture and find the backroads that really embody the travel destination that I find myself in.

In urban areas, this invariably involves navigating the local railway or subway system. In many places all the signs are posted in both the local language as well as English, but I always try to force myself to gather the meaning of the signs without resorting to reading the English version. One sign that is almost universal among these train systems is the warning to "Mind The Gap" between the railcar and the platform. With trains barreling down the tracks at significant speeds, railway architects need to leave a buffer of space to ensure the cars don't hit the platform.

It occurs to me that with greater velocity or momentum comes the need for more flexibility in design at the sacrifice of a small amount of precision. However, there is a fine balance to this design that must be maintained. Make the gap too large and passengers are at greater risk of injury. Make the gap too small and the rail design is too inflexible, causing damages and the system ends up breaking down quickly requiring replacement.

This serves as a fairly good analogy, in my estimation, for the wireless LAN industry. The WLAN market is like the railway car, picking up velocity and traveling at a fairly fast speed down the tracks. No one can deny the pace of change in the WLAN world, where users are adopting Wi-Fi mobile devices in record-breaking numbers, the Internet of Things (IoT) is on the horizon, and businesses are finding that Wi-Fi can actually enable new services and insights that help them differentiate. Users, meanwhile, are standing on the platforms trying to hop onto this fast-moving train, all-the-while expecting an effortless and satisfactory experience that they have been accustomed to for the past decade. WLAN administrators are caught in the middle, trying to design these systems to be flexible enough to accommodate the increased velocity and change in the industry while trying to minimize the "gap" between the railway car (WLAN services) and the platform (Users). A tough job indeed!

If WLAN administrators have any hope of succeeding in minimizing the gap, they need to place proper focus on understanding market direction and be armed with the proper tools and resources to effectively design a solution that not only meets the current needs but future needs as well. With every new advancement that comes along, the industry is challenged to identify and develop tools that enable administrators to effectively design the WLAN system based on these new capabilities and changes user demand. If the gap widens too far (product advancements or user demands outpace the ability for administrators to effectively design the WLAN) then users are at risk of falling through and suffering a poor user experience and dissatisfaction.

Therefore, a constant ebb and flow exists in the industry where the gap widens as advancements are made and user demands change, only to shrink as the technology matures, deployment experiences reveal what works and what doesn't, and administrators gain the resources to design and plan for the new requirements.

One of the major "gaps" that has arisen over the course of the last several years is the overwhelming increase in demand for Wi-Fi capacity but the lack of quality resources and tools for network administrators to design for capacity requirements. Instead, WLAN admins are forced to twist RF coverage design tools into what they need using crude rule-of-thumb estimates on the number of APs per square meter / feet based on an ambiguous (at best) concept of the network type they are planning for such as data, voice, or location-services.

I say enough is enough! We need:
  • Solid Understanding - Administrators need to understand what factors determine capacity in a WLAN, including AP and client capabilities, applications in use on the network, and the unique mix of devices on their network.
  • Holistic Planning - Administrators need to fill the gaps in the WLAN design process to adequately perform capacity forecasting. This includes proper research and requirements gathering as well as integration of capacity planning alongside RF coverage planning.
  • Design Approach - Administrators need an approach to WLAN capacity planning is purpose-built for the job. Relying on RF coverage tools, not designed to account for user density, device capabilities, and application demands is simply not good enough.
  • Quality Resources - Administrators need quality tools and resources that are built specifically to aid in the task of WLAN capacity planning. The lack of quality WLAN capacity planning tools in the industry is glaringly apparent. 
Do you have gaps in your WLAN design process?

I'll be speaking about WLAN capacity planning and presenting a methodology and approach that can be used for every WLAN, big or small, at the Wireless LAN Professionals Conference next week in Austin, TX. If you're attending, please join me on Wednesday, Feb. 12th at 9am CST in Ballroom B of the Hilton Austin Airport Hotel. If you are unable to attend, a recorded video of the presentation will be made available after the event.