What you need to know when buying enterprise access points
It’s time to refresh the wireless network. How do you determine how what kind and many APs you need? That answer, as well they key to making your life a lot easier, comes down to one thing: design. That’s not to say the choice of enterprise access points is not important, but I would be doing you a disservice if I didn’t tell you the path to a reliable, high performing network is contingent on the design of the WLAN more so than the access point you choose. My gut tells me you are really after a reliable WLAN versus a certain brand of access point.
So, how do you decide what access points are right for you? Not all AP’s are created equal. Having a clear set of requirements will help narrow the selection and is essential for any WLAN deployment. The purchase of wireless access points is typically is a 3-5 year technology commitment. Simply buying the newest and “best” AP’s will not automatically make a great network. Managing a WLAN can be finicky and frustrating experience for the network manager.
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Every WLAN is unique, even if the requirements are the same. Spaces with the same footprint, such as chain retail stores, banks, or warehouses, will all have unique operating environments. RF and site surveys are critical when designing and deploying any wireless network and the only way to guarantee a reliable, high performing network.
I am a wireless fanatic. I have been designing, troubleshooting, and remediating enterprise wireless networks for over a decade. I have helped hundreds of companies overcome wireless challenges. As such, I have experience with all major enterprise access point brands.
Most of the troubleshooting engagements I am called into exhibit either poor design or improper configuration. The issue is not usually due to inferior equipment. However, when a customer asks me to design from scratch, I have a short list of vendors I recommend for wireless networks.
For years I have been a Ruckus WiSE guy. I have always been impressed with Ruckus' antenna technology. There is a lot of special sauce brewing under the hood. I have found that when conditions allow, you can use fewer Ruckus AP's than some other manufacturers. However, this can only be done using a rigorous design process.
Ruckus has been around long enough that they have every possible type of management platform. You may need a cluster of on-prem physical controllers to manage thousands of AP's, or you might only have a few AP's you can use their Unleashed management system, or for a network of any size or physical location, use Ruckus Cloud. Whatever the vertical, there is a Ruckus solution for you. If you are interested in the benefits of Private LTE, Ruckus also offers CBRS.
Juniper Driven by Mist AI:
A wireless (and now wired) network in the cloud. The first wireless network manufacturer to build their system from the ground up using a cloud management platform. Onboarding AP's is simple, use an app on your smartphone to scan a QR code on the AP, take a picture of the installation, and it's ready to go.
Mist AI does an excellent job monitoring millions of data points, providing the wireless engineer with solutions to issues most times before the problem is reported. If you need to get more out of an IT staff that is already stretched to the limit, Mist is the way to go. Implementing a Juniper / Mist wired and wireless network is like hiring a wireless engineer. Of course, you always need to start with a proper design.
Aruba a Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company
If you want to run a single manufacturer end to end, HPE Aruba is the way to go. From the firewall to the AP's and everything in between. They have a great selection of indoor and outdoor access points, any flavor of switch you could imagine (they are HPE after all), and now offer SD-WAN.
HPE Aruba has excellent training opportunities and a strong user community called AirHeads. Aruba offers a third-party solution to CBRS if Private LTE is of interest. And if you are standing up a network end to end, you might want to take advantage of their flexible financing options.
Mimosa by Airspan
Mimosa is a great P2P or PtMP solution. Simple setup yet plenty of configuration and tuning options. Mimosa has a great selection of radios, frequencies, and price points from which to choose.
They have purpose-built antennas and installation accessories. Super easy to install, manage, and monitor. Monitor all of your links in real-time using their cloud management portal. Mimosa is my go-to for outdoor links.
Questions to think about
Here are some ways to help you determine what wireless network equipment is best for your environment:
Determine the network/organization requirements. Understanding the applications in use, client device types, building specs, throughput requirements, and many other factors is required before any wireless network design can begin.
Which manufacturer has the feature set that will meet your requirements? AP technology, Security features, Controller type, etc.
Will access points work on multiple types of controller solutions?
What is the subscription/licensing model?
Does the vendor offer financing? Don't let your budget get in the way of the network you need today!
Do you employ certified wireless engineers? If not, is the management interface intuitive and easy to use?
Do you need to upgrade your switches? If you are moving to Wi-Fi 6 (especially 6E), you will need to look at multi-Gig switch ports.
PoE will also be an issue. With improvements in AP's come increased demand for power. A WLAN upgrade must include a survey of switching hardware.
Although switches are agnostic, look for interoperability benefits. Vendors are coming up with exciting ways to bring switching into wireless network management solutions.
If you are reading this, you probably have a wireless network with older access points. Depending on your refresh cycle, your infrastructure could be getting long in the tooth. The enterprise WLAN market is currently transitioning to Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax). Rather than improving speeds and feeds, Wi-Fi 6 promises to deliver improvements in spectrum efficiency, performance, and security over previous versions.
What you need to be thinking about now in preparation for Wi-Fi 6
Multi-Gig switch ports - Multi-Gig per AP on the wire changes from theoretical to likely. Early indications are that the first Wi-Fi 6 capable AP's will be Tri-Band; this means that they will include 2.4, 5, and 6 GHz radios. With clients on all three radios, it is certainly possible to go over 1 GBps.
PoE - These radios are going to need more power. Most vendors will allow the AP's to run on multiple power settings with varying levels of the feature set being operational. As always, full functionality will require full power.
These are the key technologies responsible for advancements in Wi-Fi 6
MU-MIMO: (Multiple User, Multiple Input, Multiple Output) For the first time, a wireless access point will simultaneously communicate with up to eight client devices. MU-MIMO requires spatial diversity to define discreet client directionality. This technology won't help in most high-density environments.
OFDMA: (Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiple Access) Allows a single channel to be subdivided into smaller 'resource units' to communicate with multiple client devices simultaneously. This technology is ideal for high-density applications.
WPA3: is the most significant security upgrade to wireless networking in a decade. It will be mandatory in Wi-Fi 6.
Other Wi-Fi 6 magic:
BSS Coloring, Spatial Reuse Operation, Target Wake Time, 1024-QAM. These are some of the more esoteric improvements in the PHY. Take some time to investigate how they will improve Wi-Fi.