Wi-Fi buyers guide: Questions to ask and capabilities to look out for

When it comes to the best Wi-Fi solution for your organisation, a one size fits all model does not work.

The proliferation of Wi-Fi-enabled devices entering the workplace has challenged IT with striking the right balance between usability and security, and often compromising on cost. Subsequently organisations have had to ensure the right BYOD policies are in place to enable workers to be productive, particularly in supporting the apps and devices that allow them to do so. With this change in behaviour comes an expectation that the connectivity provided is inherently reliable, secure and cost-efficient.   

There is also a large shift in WLAN market development from businesses demanding simple, always-on, seamless connectivity most importantly at a competitive price point, to needs that extend far beyond connectivity alone. WLAN’s advancement will offer businesses so much more in terms of data collection and uses for Wi-Fi outside of the norm and businesses and IT managers alike need to seriously consider these needs when choosing Wi-Fi solutions and infrastructure. From here they can then adapt policies to ensure employees are productive but the network remains secure.   

But where do you start? And how do you ensure your investment will cater for the needs of your growing organisation?   

A one size fits all model doesn’t work 

Traditionally, the wireless market has catered to the needs of enterprise businesses with enterprise-grade wireless infrastructure, supplemented with a price to match. While small and medium-sized businesses have been forced to weigh up their options between low-end, inexpensive and oftentimes unreliable wireless solutions and access points, versus splashing out on enterprise-grade APs and solutions that offer extras far exceeding SMB needs.   

The market is now waking up to the fact that businesses require wireless services that have sufficient bandwidth; can scale and adapt as required; have appropriate network security; and have a central point of management. All while keeping cost and complexity to a minimum.   

Moving forward, connectivity vendors will need to offer the above-mentioned requirements as the market shifts, especially as more employees access critical business networks through their own devices. The most noticeable shift is a large transition from centralised to distributed control, and the continued rise of cloud networking and software-defined architectures. With an increased adoption of 802.11ac Wave 2 access points. 

Checkmarks against a checklist 

The connectivity vendor market is crowded and confusing. It’s all the more important for IT managers therefore to pose the following key questions to providers when considering their Wi-Fi solution of choice. 

1. Adaptability: Wi-Fi solutions should continuously adjust to the business, application, and infrastructure changes it comes in contact with. Small business, especially go through many an internal change and Wi-Fi that can adapt to staff increases and enable a feeling of confident that sensitive data being shared across the network doesn’t fall into competitor’s hands is key. 

2.  Flexibility: Whether you’re upgrading APs or changing wireless infrastructure entirely, it must be compatible with and easily integrate with existing architecture and applications. Failing to factor in legacy systems or unconnected devices can leave you with decreased productivity and a large IT bill.    

3. Affordability: Ensuring that the purchasing of hardware and solutions falls within budget upfront, can reduces the cost of acquisition as well as ongoing operation of the network, all without compromising on connectivity and security.  

4. Continuity: Networks that use analytical data in order to self-optimise, self-heal, and self-organise operations.  

5. Scalability: The ability to start small and grow as business requirements change is integral to purchasing wireless or upgrading current systems. Particularly for fast-growth businesses, lack of scalability could be what stands in between meeting specific funding goals or sealing a major contractual deal.  

For small businesses, there’s no question that Wi-Fi is currently the favoured choice for network access among most organisations today. Making it crucial that any wireless-first workplace has the right infrastructure in place. Even if it requires the basic connectivity level today, it is important to ensure your solution is geared towards your current business needs and price point. Having the ability to scale the infrastructure with you as a seamless add-on, causing zero disruption, enables you to easily add new functionality as your business needs evolve. 

Building a network to last   

With the infrastructure in place, IT needs to ensure the right BYOD policies become commonplace throughout the workforce. This ensures the wireless network has enough capacity for the range of devices attempting to gain access. While 802.11ac has unlocked speeds of Gigabit and beyond, is this enough bandwidth? Explore the various implementations of WLAN architecture and performance optimisation features that are available to you, which can help you determine how to realise the true potential of your infrastructure, and protect future growth within a single site or across multiple geographic locations. 

To have a fast network may be necessary, but to guarantee network uptime is critical. Nine out of 10 organisations consider the use of mobile devices to be either critical or very important to their business processes and productivity. Therefore, the supporting infrastructure must be rock solid, otherwise there is significant impact to the business. It’s important to understand how quickly your business and infrastructure can recover from a service outage or reduction in productivity, in order to have a combative plan in place.   

In order to cope with the influx of devices, IT departments are having to balance flexibility against security in order to meet business needs. There is top down pressure to enable productivity and efficiency at a competitive price point, and mobility is a key part of this. However, for IT to get the job done, the highest levels of security that should be implemented are often neglected in favour of flexibility. 

The doors are now open to BYOD, guests and IoT devices to gain access to the network, but it might not always be clear who’s on when. Selecting an appropriate management platform is crucial to providing visibility and control of which devices are connecting with the network, what applications are being accessed and where they are located.   

Wi-Fi offers a unique opportunity to better connect with people through their mobile device and provide connectivity for network connected systems and sensors that enable intelligent buildings or security systems, all of which can leverage cloud-based analytics engines and applications to increase business intelligence. As organisations seek to increase engagement, productivity and cost savings, these capabilities will become a key part of the WLAN selection criteria for organisations in 2017 and beyond. 

Mathew Edwards, Product Marketing Manager at Aerohive Networks 

Image Credit: Chris Oakley / Flickr