Selecting Best Wireless Systems for Campus Connectivity

Stosh Morency, Executive Director of IT, Kent School District

Stosh Morency, Executive Director of IT, Kent School District

As the Executive Director of IT for the fourth largest school district in Washington State, a district recognized internationality for its successful technology initiatives; I get asked a lot of questions about what vendor’s platform we selected for each of our IT service offerings. More often than not, it is a simple response of the product we use and why we felt it would best meet our needs.

Selecting access point vendor to support one-to-one laptop deployment

During my tenure in IT, I have had wireless networks comprised of Aruba, Cisco, Meru, Ruckus, and Xirrus and I can tell you that none of them stand out in my mind as being any better or worse over the long run if implemented according to the manufacturer’s design. These wireless vendor questions circulate a lot and I think a lot of people get hung up on wireless vendor selection when really Wi-Fi is similar to digital cameras. Every vendor makes annual incremental improvements and innovations over other vendors, but almost all of them will work just fine for the intended purpose and will have the same competing features added to their product in the next generation.

Most of what determines your long term satisfaction with your wireless network falls under the following four areas. Notice that vendor and brand is not one of the areas.

Invest the time to understand the technology

Take the time to school yourself and your team in a foundational understanding of how Wi-Fi and radio antennas and frequencies work. With even a basic understanding of these fundamentals, you can cut through much of the sales pitch and marketing gimmicks and focus on product information that will actually apply in the real world, not the theoretical perfect imaginary world where these products are tested to create the specs printed on the glossy brochures and packaging.

With your new found knowledge you should be better equipped to partner with resellers that carry multiple brands and can help you consider the appropriateness of the radio design matched to your building materials and antenna mounting options. Common implementation issues that I have seen organizations stumble over include directional or focused antennas pointing towards objects that absorb radio signals, high powered antenna arrays sending signals further than clients have power to send signal back, and knowing the differences and reasons when to use 2.4GHz and/or 5GHz.

"Invest in a few tools or find free ones to help you diagnose and troubleshoot wireless issues. Even a simple free phone app can tell you a lot about the access points it can see, their signal strengths and the channels they are using"

Seek to understand the strengths and weaknesses of a given wireless access point technology. Some vendor products are better suited for certain environments, but most will do the job just fine if you know how they were designed to be used and implement them in a way the takes advantage of their strengths and mitigates their weaknesses.

Wireless interference is real and can cause your team to spend a lot of time troubleshooting the wrong things. A professional wireless survey of each of your sites can help identify sources of interference so you can take them into your design considerations. There are things that can interfere with all radios, regardless of vendor: microwaves, phones, airports, mobile hotspots, and neighbors with their own wireless implementations. Don’t forget every wireless item in your building can be a potential interferer. Interference comes in many forms: things that emit radio frequencies, absorb frequencies, reflect frequencies, and distort frequencies.

Pay for it now or pay for it later

Ensure you consider all the costs of implementing and supporting your wireless infrastructure and secure sufficient funding to achieve the desired density. I find hardware costs equal about 4-10 percent of the total cost of ownership. If your hardware costs represent 70 percent of your identified costs, you are likely overlooking some significant areas.

What is the health of your current IT infrastructure environment and how will this affect your implementation costs? Will you be utilizing existing network jacks and cabling? Are they compatible with PoE and GigE? Will you be utilizing existing ports on network switches? A cost that can be overlooked is the cost of your team to manage, support and troubleshoot the final solution. Ease of management needs to be balanced with your need for feature complexity. Is your team big enough to manage the product, or do you need a simpler management platform that offers less configurability and flexibility, but is reliable and harder for an inexperienced engineer to misconfigure?

Part of managing costs is managing commitments and expectations. Be clear with your customers and stakeholders what you are building.

Quality of your support and design engineers

I have seen wireless implementations that have suffered issues for years get better almost overnight once a high quality support engineer finally got assigned to the customer account and the customer dedicated internal resources to partner with the engineer until the issue was resolved. Don’t wait weeks or years to escalate a situation with your wireless provider. Keep pushing it up the chain of command until you get a quality resource assigned to your case. Likewise, don’t wait until you have an incident to build relationships with the support managers assigned to your account. Make sure they are tuned in to your customer’s needs and the services you are providing with the vendor’s products. Work to establish relationships with as many layers of the vendor’s support structure as you can manage. Preferably all the way to a vice president. Ensure you have quick access to all levels of the support and sales org chart for when big issues occur. Document phone numbers and email addresses. Don’t abuse these relationships?

Commitment to invest in your team

So let’s assume you already have a great support engineer or you selected your wireless solution based on the high quality sales engineer employed by your local reseller. You can have a great engineer assigned to your account for years and then they suddenly take a new job. What is your plan?

Invest in a few tools or find free ones to help you diagnose and troubleshoot wireless issues. Even a simple free phone app can tell you a lot about the access points it can see, their signal strengths and the channels they are using.

Invest in advanced training for your internal support team and encourage them to invest in themselves by keeping their skills current with industry standards and technologies. Every investment made is less dependency on external vendors and their associated support delays.

Insist on the sales engineers making regular visits for the sole purpose on knowledge transfer to your team, not selling the latest product offerings.

Our Secret to Success: Interns

One final though I would share is the impact a student intern program can have on your wireless network and your organization’s mission. Kent School District built out their wireless network partnering with high school and college student interns and continues to maintain it with student interns. We recycled unused cable drops in classrooms so our primary cost was just access point hardware and patch cables. The students enter the workforce with real experience and can talk intelligently about project management and wireless infrastructure during their future job interviews. Win – Win.

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