Wi-Fi analytics get real

IT pros talk about the benefits they reap from the Wi-Fi analytics tools they’ve installed in their production networks and the benefits they hope for as these platforms evolve.

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A number of Wi-Fi analytics tools have been brought to market over the past few years, and while most organizations have yet to dip their toes in the Wi-Fi analytics waters, our research shows that those who have are realizing significant benefits.

To be sure, there’s still lots of room for innovation in Wi-Fi analytics, but the glowing reviews we’ve received in our interviews with network practitioners across a wide variety of industries and applications indicate explosive growth ahead over the next few years.

While the two terms are sometimes used interchangeably, it’s important to understand how analytics is different from analysis. Analytics applies “what-if” thinking to very large problems that would otherwise be intractable. Whereas analysis is appropriate for bounded, well-understood problems, analytics can be applied in situations where you don’t know what you’re looking for – and can do so with the speed and flexibility that is essential in network operations today and, in most cases, beyond the capabilities of human information processing alone.

It’s easy to see how analytics can be applied to Wi-Fi networks. While suspect behavior almost always triggers an exploration of the data available, the sheer volume of information, even in mid-sized networks, generally precludes a quick conclusion. The quickest path to extracting meaning and value from all that data, and setting upon the optimal path to a solution to what might seem like a simple problem at the time – but which often morphs into very long weekends looking through logs and settings – is the right analytics tool.

As we learned from our conversations with those already putting Wi-Fi analytics to work, the solution to any given problem often leads well beyond the common and the obvious, and with the constant pressure to minimize time-to-solution so as to keep networks on the air today always motivating innovative productivity-enhancing strategies and solutions, Wi-Fi analytics brings exactly what’s needed to the table.

Widespread knowledge and understanding of the technologies and strategies of network analytics today remains limited, as is to be expected in any new field of technical endeavor. So, in an effort to close this knowledge gap, we decided to take a look at how an investment in acquiring, learning, and applying Wi-Fi analytics tools is benefiting operations teams.

We interviewed IT professionals at four different organizations, asking three fundamental questions: Why did you make the investment in network analytics? What problems are you solving that couldn’t be addressed before? And what additional network analytics capabilities would you like to have going forward?

Here’s what we learned.

University of Washington troubleshoots Wi-Fi

David Morton is director, networks and telecommunications, for the University of Washington. David and the IT Infrastructure team are responsible for wired and wireless networks at the university, plus university hospitals, the state’s K-20 school networks, and more. The network includes 12,000 APs and serves more than 80,000 unique users per day and a few hundred thousand devices connecting per week.

Morton noted that as his networks continued to grow in scale and complexity, more issues and problems were appearing than were being reported. With Wi-Fi access becoming mission-critical, he needed better methods for finding and fixing problems, proactively if possible.

He chose Aruba’s Rasa analytics tools to help him identify specific problems and recommend solutions.

For example, a “clicker” application that enabled students to answer questions in class was not working properly, but with only 40-50 out of 400 students in larger classrooms being affected, identifying the cause was very difficult. Multiple classrooms had the same problem, but the affected user base varied without a pattern.

A check of the management console revealed no obvious issues, so Morton used Rasa to analyze across clients, controllers and destinations. He discovered that the issue was multi-faceted: a Wi-Fi configuration change

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