There are serious differences between small business and enterprise WLAN. At the same time, defining “enterprise” can be tricky.
For where we’re going in this piece, enterprise equals big as measured by client device counts and diversity, complicated when it comes to security, and critical when it comes to uptime and stability.
That gets the conversation started in the right place. Now let’s get into the major areas to address when building an enterprise Wi-Fi system.
It starts with policy and operational goals
IT history is filled with stories of folly about purchasing the wrong “solution” or buying into some vendor’s do-all promise without really understanding what was actually needed for a given situation.
To me, any network implementation has to be grounded in organizational goals and policy. And those goals and policies have to be endorsed by the C-level folks. Otherwise, your team and any in-house tech staff are not reading from the same sheet of music as the organizational administration, and conflict is inevitable.
Make sure everyone with a stake has a clear understanding of what the WLAN actually needs to do—no making it up as you roll out.
Furthermore, a well-formulated policy will often reveal other parts of the network that need to be integrated. Security and monitoring policies will drive a big part of the WLAN configuration and can identify where things like RADIUS servers, credential stores, firewalls, and network management systems come into play.
Then you collect requirements
You’re still not ready to go do wireless things. Understanding policy and organizational goals get you harmonized with the rest of the IT framework, but you can’t take on design and deployment tasks without gathering WLAN requirements.
How many devices will be used in different areas of the WLAN? What types of devices? What applications will they use? How many SSIDs will be in use, and what’s the topology for each as they make their way into the LAN? What growth factor do you allow for, given that whatever you are about to create likely has to last some number of years? What impact do aesthetic concerns have on how and where you can deploy access points?
You may not be able to neatly answer every question when it comes to requirements, but you absolutely have to take your best-documented shot at it by talking with as many key stakeholders as possible.
Requirements combine with policy and goals to give the basis for design. Skip any of these and you’re asking for serious trouble when the WLAN is finally lit up.
You’re ready for design and infrastructure
With key inputs defined for the design process for each space you have to cover, you can get busy.
Assuming that multiple rooms and spaces (and even buildings and outdoor areas) are in play, enterprise Wi-Fi needs solid design that comes from professional-grade tools like Ekahau Site Survey, iBwave Wi-Fi, or AirMagnet Survey and Planner in skilled hands.
If you have the resources on your team, you’re fortunate. Otherwise, consider subcontracting to a wireless specialist to develop a design that fulfills the requirements defined earlier in the project.
For building out the infrastructure, give each component in the path from the access point to the internet edge the respect it deserves. Cabling also needs to be installed professionally, with each run certified for performance.
Switches that provide Power over Ethernet should be matched to the APs in use for power delivery. (Old switches on new APs can be a PoE disaster).
And nothing makes a good WLAN feel bad to end users like poorly deployed DHCP services, too-tight firewall rules, or an undersized ISP connection.
You might be installing a “wireless network,” but you can’t ignore the rest of the network environment as you do.
Now it’s time to verify
This is a step where corners are frequently cut to the detriment of the overall WLAN performance.
It’s not enough to simply have an access point at every location the design calls for. Access points generally have multiple radios, each capable of a range of channel and power settings.
If you use auto RF features, the algorithms that adjust the RF environment don’t always get things right. I’ve seen power way too high or ridiculously low, and have also seen an entire floor’s worth of APs on the same channel because auto RF got something wrong.
You’ve put a lot of time into getting the WLAN to this point. It’s worth the time to “walk it out” and do a verification survey, again with professional-quality tools.
On a new WLAN, you’re not just looking for signal coverage. You’re also exercising authentication servers, network and application performance, and security rules while making sure the RF environment is optimized.
Store the results and use them as a baseline reference for future troubleshooting.
Don’t forget monitoring
We have lift-off! The Wi-Fi environment has been deployed and tested. The wireless side of the enterprise has been integrated properly with the wired side and core services, and lots of users are making use of the new resource as they go about their work.
Mission accomplished, yes? Well, not quite.
Minimally, anything that qualifies as a building block to the WLAN needs to be monitored for uptime. We’re talking about access points, controllers (if applicable), switches, UPS systems, routers, authentication and DNS/DHCP servers, and everything else in the enterprise mix.
In an established enterprise, a lot of the monitoring is probably already in place—but Wi-Fi can be a different animal.
My own enterprise WLAN deployment is so dense that we don’t alert on every AP that goes down, especially after hours. But we can see down APs in a full-time dashboard. We also make extensive use of Syslog for troubleshooting everything from DHCP issues to user authentication problems.
We’ve obviously greatly condensed the actual steps required to bring an enterprise WLAN to life and then keep its users happy.
At the same time, the basic workflow laid out here has served my own hundreds of thousands of wireless users well through the years. I can’t over-emphasize the importance of the upfront, non-technical aspects of doing Wi-Fi.
One other important fact to remember is this: If you’ve built a solid Wi-Fi environment, have faith in it when the occasional problem hits. I’ve found that well over 90% of all “Wi-Fi” problems are actually client issues—problematic drivers, configuration issues, botched credentials—in my enterprise WLAN spaces.
Having confidence in good network design and implementation lets you focus time and attention on the real problems to get clients back into service quicker.