Secrets of the best enterprise Wi-Fi networks revealed

Wireless LAN leaders consistently enforce security policies, prioritize traffic

A new Aberdeen Group report documents the benefits of the practices, procedures and tools used by best-in-class organizations to optimize Wi-Fi performance and security.

A just released Aberdeen Group research report identifies the steps taken by best-in-class enterprise IT groups to create secure, pervasive, manageable, reliable, high-performance Wi-Fi networks.

The highest scorers in the new study had aggressive growth in Wi-Fi coverage and traffic, and a big drop in network downtime, indicating a more stable network on which users increasingly rely, according to Andrew Borg, senior research analyst with the wireless and mobility practice at Aberdeen, a technology research and consulting firm in Boston. "These best-in-class enterprises are holistic in approaching what they conceive of as a strategic enterprise asset," Borg says.

How to optimize your Wi-Fi network  

These enterprises no longer see a Wi-Fi network as a convenience that's casually overlaid on the wireline infrastructure, and managed on an ad hoc basis. Instead, the  best-in-class companies adopted an array of proactive tactics, technologies and procedures to achieve big gains in performance and security, creating a reliable network with optimal throughput. The tactics included:

* Boosting Wi-Fi capacity by several possible means.

* Consistently enforcing wireless security policies.

* Identifying and prioritizing business-critical wireless traffic.

These tactics had specific benefits for users, according to respondents in this top group, which comprised 20% of the 143 enterprises surveyed by Aberdeen earlier this year. The user benefits identified by the best-in-class group included: easier access from more locations to enterprise data, improved productivity, a jump in customer satisfaction, faster decision making and greater collaboration.

The report, "Wireless LAN 2009" (registration required), was based on an extensive Web-based survey combined with in-depth follow-up phone interviews with a subset of respondents.

Participate in Aberdeen's IT survey on the issues and challenges of multi-site WLANs

Generally, the top performers also were much more likely to have centralized Wi-Fi management, a wireless intrusion detection/prevention system, bandwidth limitations and priorities for applications and users, and spectrum analyzers for continuously designing and configuring the network.

Each of these systems or products was itself part of a comprehensive scheme for each broader area. For the best-in-class shops, RF spectrum analyzers go hand in hand with procedures and schedules to make use of them, along with site survey software to map fluctuations, identify trouble spots and plan infrastructure changes. Intrusion-blocking systems were more likely for this group to be part of regular site assessments of security vulnerabilities, IT staff security training and certification, and security awareness education for users.

Burning questions for enterprise mobility and wireless

These interrelated, proactive measures enable the best-in-class companies to achieve dramatic improvements, especially compared with companies that take a more fragmentary, ad hoc approach, according to Borg.

Aberdeen's research blends two methodologies. One framework identifies problems, pressures and pain points, and then carries through to identify a series of steps and resources needed to relieve the pain. A second framework uses an array of performance indicators to sift respondents into one of three groups: best-in-class (the top 20%), industry average (the next 50%) and laggards (the bottom 30%).

"Wireless LAN 2009" found plenty of Wi-Fi pain. The top concern, cited by 52% of all respondents, was the drop in wireless performance as usage grows and triggers Wi-Fi scaling issues. Just over half of these said this drop was due to bandwidth-hungry video applications and voice; the rest said is was to due to the overall increase in traffic.

Thirty-seven percent cited corporate pressure to increase employee productivity as the No. 2 pain point, which Aberdeen attributes in part to the current financial crisis, and to a desire to bring to fruition the claimed benefits of enterprise mobility

The No. 3 issue was the risk of Wi-Fi security breaches, cited by 31% of respondents.

The study found dramatic differences among the three groups in deploying Wi-Fi networks. In the past year, the top scorers saw wireless traffic soar by 229%, compared with 114% for the average group, and just 11% for the laggards. During the same period, uptime or network availability increased by 121% for the top group, compared with 44% for the average, and just 6% for laggards. Finally, the percentage of all company facilities covered by wireless increased by 201% for the top group, by 60% for the average and 12% for laggards.

More specifically, the best in class increased their Wi-Fi coverage for their entire organization by 15%. For the average, it was 12%, and for laggards, 6%. The frequency of dropped connections decreased by 15% for the top group, by 8% for the average and actually increased by 9% for the laggards.

By their own estimation, the "quality of end-user experience" improved by 14% for the top group, 9% for the average and 6% for the laggards. The frequency of failed wireless security breaches rose by 10% for the best in class, and by 3% for the average and 2% for the laggards.

So, how do the best in class achieve these results? By a variety of policies, procedures and products, including the most basic technology building blocks for WLANs. There seems to be a kind of cumulative effect of all of these elements working together: the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

Keeping in mind that technology best practices are only one part of this picture, the table below shows what IT shops are investing in, as identified by Aberdeen. The numbers represent the percentage of each group making a given technology investment. As the percentages show, the top performers -- the best in class -- are more likely (sometimes far more likely) to invest in these tools. But as other Aberdeen data make clear, they also are more likely to use processes, organization changes and knowledge sharing that leverage these tools.

The right tools for Wi-Fi optimization

Besides technologies and products, Aberdeen lists best practices in other areas as well, all of which reinforce each other. For example, intrusion protection and user authentication go hand-in-hand with:

* Knowledge sharing via a centralized storehouse of WLAN data (a key enabler for many of the best practices).

* Processes to perform site-wide security vulnerability assessments (68% of best in class do this, compared with 59% for average and 54% for laggards).

* Organizational changes such as IT security training and certification (64% of top scorers, 43% of average and 42% of laggards) and ongoing security awareness training for users (68% of the top, 36% of the average and 30% of laggards).

The best-in-class companies know how their networks are performing and how healthy they are: 55% have RF spectrum analysis procedures (compared with 35% of average and 30% of laggards; 41% have tools for developing custom performance reports (compared with 22% of average and just 12% of laggards).

The high scorers are much more likely to save, analyze and share this data, using it as the basis of continued network improvements and sustained performance optimization, as part of a centralized approach in network management. In the top group, 41% make use of and share a central repository of WLAN data, 32% document the best practices derived from Wi-Fi pilots, and the same percentage run cost-benefit analyses of bandwidth upgrades to "ascertain the true business benefits and make an informed business decision" to guide the upgrade investments.

Finally, 55% of best in class have trained help desk staff for Wi-Fi support, but only 29% of average scorers do, and just 18% of laggards do. That lack of expertise means it can take much longer to resolve problems of any size, with attendant increases in network downtime and in lost employee productivity or customer satisfaction.

The percentages don't quite tell the whole story until you realize their relationship to each other, according to Borg. For example, the 36% of best-in-breed companies that set application bandwidth thresholds for the WLAN is 64% percent greater than the average group, and 140% more than the laggards, he notes. "These are the behaviors that lead to the performance advantages that the best in class enjoy," he says.

"I was surprised to see that the performance improvements [for best in class] were so great," Borg says. "They had significantly less [WLAN] downtime, which also bears on the WLAN cost and total cost of ownership."

These best-in-class behaviors and practices have still another benefit. The more of these that are applied, the fewer problems they had. Fewer network problems mean lower support costs, more satisfied users, more pervasive and more reliable wireless access, improved productivity and so on.

Borg says these results contribute to the growing adoption of Wi-Fi-enabled mobility, which is no longer limited to a small group of executives and specialized groups working in the field. "Mobility is here to stay, despite the economic downturn," Borg says. Aberdeen's studies found that enterprise spending on Wi-Fi networks, from March 2008 to March 2009 increased by just over 27%, in the teeth of a massive and continuing economic contraction.

Migrating to high-performance 802.11n Wi-Fi is seen as a way to address the concerns for higher speed, higher throughput and greater coverage, as documented in our October 2008 Clear Choice Test. Almost 80% of the best in class, 75% of the average group and nearly 60% of the laggards either have some 11n access points deployed or are planning to do so.

But he cautions that just replacing existing wireless gear with 11n won't enable enterprises to realize the full benefit, unless it's part of deliberate, systematic and concerted efforts to make related changes in procedures, in organization, tools and knowledge sharing.

"Look at what you have, and begin to optimize it….It's never too late to start this," Borg says.

Learn more about this topic

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Before you deploy APs, use these tools for coverage and capacity planning

Analyze this: Low-cost wireless spectrum analyzers do the tric

Guidelines for securing IEEE 802.11i wireless networks

Navigating the WLAN management maze

Insider Tip: 12 easy ways to tune your Wi-Fi network
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