As we gear up for ‘industry 4.0’ – driven by the Internet of Things (IoT) – Wi-Fi will have an ever more important role to play in the enterprise.
From the warehouse, to factory floor, to delivery vehicles, to cargo planes, to offices and more, Wi-Fi will help knit together the seamless broadband connectivity that will enable smart objects to sense, connect and talk to one another to improve the way we collect, capture and share data. What’s more, in many organisations, Wi-Fi is now the default network. These changes mean that IT faces greater challenges in delivering flawless wireless coverage.
Budgets fall, challenges rise
Wi-Fi was first deployed for ‘green screen’ apps – such as helping teams manage stock control in warehouses, factory floor schedules and logistics operations.
From these humble beginnings Wi-Fi has come a long way. Today’s enterprise wireless networks must support a multitude of applications, from business critical customer relationship and enterprise resource planning apps, to social media, to video streaming and, Voice Over IP. And, as the IoT becomes more important to the way businesses are run, IT teams will need to install and oversee more wireless networks.
What’s more, employees, guests and customers now demand continuous connectivity wherever they are. Networks must be capable of servicing thousands of simultaneous connections – from any device – all while delivering excellent performance. In fact, many customers that I visit have service goals that Tier 1 telecoms providers would be proud.
All of this would be fine were IT budgets not under pressure. But, despite the upturn in economic fortunes, the tight grip placed on IT expenditure post the crash hasn’t loosened much. And, when you think that many IT teams are expected to provide Wi-Fi across potentially thousands of locations, sometimes globally, it becomes clear that they face a big task. Fortunately, the technology has some answers.
The technology answers
Traditionally, building and running a Wi-Fi network was a challenging proposition – requiring in-depth knowledge of security protocols, radio frequency propagation, antennas, and internet protocol. But that’s changing. Many networks have intelligence built in to help teams monitor and maintain quality of service. The five capabilities I believe are really crucial to look for from your network include:
– Visibility and monitoring: Install networks that allow you to provide reports tailored to individual’s roles. For example, a network administrator may want to drill down to any access point anywhere, while the CIO may just need a weekly or monthly graphical update on service levels, issues resolution, and bandwidth use.
A central dashboard allied to a template reporting capability will allow you to prepare pretty much any report for any role – saving you time in the process.
– App tracing: Some of your network traffic, for example, your SAP application, will be business critical. So it’s useful to have remote monitoring tools that can not only tell you what’s running on your network, but allow you to prioritise business applications (e.g. between 9amd and 5pm) – ahead of requests for Facebook or general web searches.
The best monitoring systems use Deep Packet Inspection engines, built in to management software and wireless access points, to allow you to monitor traffic. You can then use rules-based firewalls, again these come as standard with leading networks, to filter, or throttle non-priority traffic.
– Network assurance: When I speak to administrators the number one thing that worries them most is not seeing what’s happening on their network – there’s nothing worse than a flood of unexpected calls to the helpdesk. We’ve focused on this area in our latest Wi-Fi administration tools to provide constant insight over the network’s health.
This visibility includes a wealth of real-time data from the status of individual access points, to loads, to a view of what apps are running to the number and types of devices connecting to the network. A range of troubleshooting tools complement this transparency as described below.
– Troubleshooting: Troubleshooting should include the option to remotely reboot, adjust, and change configurations for any access point, anywhere, over the web. You should also be able to create rules for how the tools are used.
For example, the network can automatically take some measures to prevent an issue becoming a problem – such as switching an access point to a new channel to avoid interference. But you can also set the system to provide alerts for your team to step-in and take steps to resolve things.
Of all the improvements to Wi-Fi in recent years, this feature offers the greatest potential to save costs because in most instances issues can be resolved without the need to send an engineer to site.
Wi-Fi has been seen as a potential Achilles heel. However, you can mitigate threats by using networks that offer government-grade security protection. Some networks also help IT teams integrate security and legal requirements into everyday workflows (i.e. automated security tests and audits to validate compliance with Payment Card Industry data management standards). We also advise installing systems that provide an array of options to validate users.
These include making it easy for your IT teams to certify and on-board employees’ work and personal devices so that they are cleared to attach to the corporate network. Where people are working in especially sensitive areas you may also need additional security levels. These include encryption and digital watermarking for devices to ensure that the person accessing the network in that area of the building has the permission to do so.
On the flip side, you’ll also need to see when an unauthorized device has attached to the network. It’s also important to ensure that you can easily comply with legal requirements around guest access with the ability to capture people’s mobile numbers to send them codes to validate their details when they login.
Doing things better
IT is a hugely innovative and versatile industry. The questions that have been asked of it around improving efficiencies and boosting commercial performance – all while reducing costs ¬- have recently resulted in advances around cloud computing, mobility, software-as-a-service, collaboration and many more. Wi-Fi is now stepping up to the plate.
The technology can provide highly reliable performance; performance that ultimately will help power new ways of doing things by making broadband more available in more places. What’s more, it’s now possible for one person, from one web-interface, to monitor a global network of Wi-Fi networks and take actions to ensure that each is secure, fault-free and complies with local security standards. If, as seems reasonable, a technology’s success can be measured by its penetration, performance improvements and efficiency gains then Wi-Fi has come of age.