How to buy Wi-Fi networks

Wi-Fi networks are now a strategic necessity for many organisations, so careful consideration must be given to the choice of manufacturer and system integrator, as James Atkinson finds out

Wi-Fi is a ‘must have’ these days, but organisations need to be very clear about why they are using it. “The first consideration any customer needs to make is, why are they spending the money? What is the objective of the exercise: to make money, boost productivity, or improve a service?” says Steve Johnson, regional director, Northern Europe at Ruckus Wireless.

The investment may just be a straightforward refresh and upgrade to a new technology scenario. But there are now so many other types of business where Wi-Fi is a strategic investment and not a tactical one, says Johnson. “Take the hospitality industry, for example, where the Wi-Fi experience is now in the top three things users rank a hotel’s quality by.

“It doesn’t matter how big the bed is or how good the food is, if I have a bad Wi-Fi experience, I won’t go back. Good Wi-Fi helps to boost occupancy and that makes the hotel more money, so it is an investment that needs to be made as it contributes strategically to the outcome of the enterprise,” argues Johnson.

“In healthcare the outcomes are all about improving efficiency and boosting productivity. In education it is usually about achieving a better alignment and collaboration between teachers and pupils, while for the financial industry, security is the chief concern,” says Morten Illum, VP EMEA at Aruba Networks.

One of the key reasons customers need to understand what they are using Wi-Fi for, and what they want it to achieve, is that it will help them know what grade of Wi-Fi and type of architecture to go for, points out Martin Lethbridge, senior sales engineer at WatchGuard Technologies UK.

But he adds: “The second thing they should consider is security and what level of protection they are looking for. Wi-Fi bleeds out through walls and windows, so it is no good saying ‘just stick a password on the Wi-Fi Service Set Identifier (SSID)’ – that won’t secure it!”

Lethbridge argues customers should not rely on traditional Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA2-Enterprise) security. Instead, he favours wireless intrusion prevention systems (WIPSs) as a more secure solution, while others prefer wireless intrusion detection systems.

One programme manager at a major UK financial institution, who spoke to Land Mobile on condition of anonymity, explains the thinking behind its decision to roll out a new Wi-Fi network across its 20 administrative centres and 700 branches.

“We had a clear aim: to provide a secure, resilient, scalable and always-on Wi-Fi solution. The goal is to support all staff, partners and members [as it calls its customers]. We have 30,000 staff, several thousand partner staff and 14 million branch customers.

“We had two clear objectives,” he continues. “One focused on staff in the workplace; the second focused on providing customers with Wi-Fi in the branches. Both had slightly different prerequisites.

“The staff were to have a completely separate wireless network from the corporate wired LAN, which had to be completely device-agnostic. We wanted a BYOD-enabled strategy, so staff could bring in any device. We also wanted to be able to connect slightly older devices on previous Wi-Fi standards and be as future-proof as possible.”

He explains that the network also needed to be dynamically scalable to handle unpredictable numbers of devices, so it was important that there was no bottleneck at the controller. This helped dictate the eventual choice of vendor and architecture in the shape of a controller-less solution provided by Aerohive.

Assessing vendors and integrators
When it comes to selecting a vendor or systems integrator, customers are recommended to find one who has a good track record in their particular vertical. An online search is often the usual starting place, but information can also be gleaned from peers who have already gone through the process.

Illum recommends starting with analyst reports, which will at least provide the customer with some independent assessment of vendor capabilities. “When you’ve done that, look at which of them has a value proposition for your vertical that sounds like it makes sense. That might help you select three or four manufacturers that you can then check out in more detail.”

“Our advice is get a guaranteed, rubber-stamped system integrator with the vendor partner certification, and one which can also supply case studies and can demonstrate it has a lot of technical skill and experience,” says Johnson. “Select an integrator you trust and let them recommend the right technology or choice of vendor for you.”

However, Lethbridge warns: “The drawback here is that they may only be able to tell you what they know. They may not know much about other vendors they do not handle, but which you should probably consider.”

“It is a combination of understanding the customer’s requirements and providing the right price for the right product quality and service levels,” offers Illum, who adds that customers should also scope ahead in terms of what they buy now to help meet their future growth needs.

A proof of concept (PoC) trial to assess the competing equipment is another option. Obviously this costs money, so whether the customer does this or not largely depends on the size of the project.

The UK financial organisation provides a good example of this approach. “We started with a quick and dirty request for information (RFI) and request for proposal (RFP) and then proceeded to a full invitation to tender (ITT),” says the programme manager. “We had nine companies to start with, three or four of which were already incumbents with us.”

The company assessed the potential vendors using an outcome-based success criteria checklist, asking them how they would meet these criteria and for examples of how they had done it before.

“From that we drew up a shortlist and overlaid the commercials and managed services. We asked if they could offer a fully managed end-to-end service over a number of years and then asked if they could provide a commercially viable offering on that basis,” he recalls.

A preferred bidder was chosen and then a proof-of-concept trial was carried out over a six-month period in several branches. “We had not done it this way before, but we did it because the executives were quite risk averse to giving the contract to one partner without first seeing the proof that they could deliver,” says the programme manager.

On-premise vs managed service
A key decision for any customer is whether to manage the Wi-Fi network themselves in-house or opt for an outsourced managed service. It is difficult to make any hard generalisations about this, because as Aruba’s Illum observes: “One of the big changes these days is the different delivery models now available: pure public cloud; virtual private cloud on a public network; private cloud on-premise; or a fully on-premise managed service in-house. The customer needs to decide which delivery model suits them best and what approach best serves the outcomes they want to achieve, so they get the best quality service at the lowest possible cost for their type of business.”

Lethbridge thinks the managed service option is good for those who do not have enough manpower to support an in-house technical team, or do not have anyone with the technical knowledge.

“But managing your own network is beneficial too,” he says, “as it gives you a better understanding of where people work and what their Wi-Fi needs are. On the other hand, if things go wrong, you have to be able to understand what has gone wrong and how to fix it. Therefore the interfaces need to be more intuitive.”

The UK financial enterprise was very clear that it wanted a fully managed end-to-end service from its partners Arqiva, Mobliciti and Aerohive.

“We wanted the managed service partners to be seamless, not separate. We did not want a large supply chain with lots of subcontracting,” says the programme manager.

Design, planning and installation
“Wi-Fi is unique in that the planning stage is where the energy and work is done,” says Johnson, “but a good integrator will take you through this and they will have experienced the trip-up points during installation.”

Lethbridge is adamant that customers should conduct a proper RF site survey and not skimp on the cost. “Every building is different, so don’t think you can just look at the plan and predict how many access points (APs) will be needed and where to site them,” he says.

As an example to the unwary, he cites the example of a publishing house, which looked like it just needed three APs. “But when we got to the building we discovered they had a wall of books all the way round, which absorbed the RF to the point where if you shut the door, you got no RF in the conference room at all!”

Illum is less convinced RF surveys are required now, as he believes modern sophisticated design planning tools can predict what is required with considerable accuracy. In addition, like most Wi-Fi vendors these days, once installed, Aruba APs are auto-configuring and auto-aligning.

Value-added services
“When you decide to install Wi-Fi, you need to be thinking about the potential added services,” says Illum. “Take sport and entertainment venues and arenas. You can order your food over the Wi-Fi and it will be delivered to your seat, as they know where you are.

“Or look at healthcare where you can make staff more efficient by tagging all the shared components such as wheelchairs, so they can find one quickly and know whether it is in use or not.”

WatchGuard’s Lethbridge points to organisations such as local councils wholesaling their networks to other organisations and businesses as a way to help pay for the network and create a revenue stream.

Hotels and venues can also use their networks to generate additional revenues, while retailers are keen on location-based applications to measure footfall, dwell times and locations. Lastly, Wi-Fi can support a wide range of IoT applications such as automated building management systems.

Aftercare and maintenance
All the vendors recommend support contracts either with the manufacturer or more usually with the system integrator, but backed up by the vendor.

Lethbridge says: “You can get a great system, but if you have a problem, who do you contact? If it’s the vendor, do they have the required support? What is the warranty situation?”

“Ruckus provides a limited lifetime warranty, but check and make sure your vendor or integrator can underwrite your investment,” says Johnson.

Most support contracts, especially direct ones with the vendor, will provide an option for software support, including ongoing upgrades to the software over the lifetime of the APs.

Aruba enables its channel partners to deliver end-to-end support for the customer. “We make sure they can deliver the entire pre- and post-sale service. That makes the customer feel secure as the partner has total accountability for the design, installation and ongoing management of the network,” explains Illum.