Monday, December 12, 2016

Why “Shiny and New” is Bad for SMB Wi-Fi

In our society of the 30-second sound bite, we market our Wi-Fi, as we market most technological innovations, on being shiny and new.   For years, everything in Wi-Fi has been about size and speed – the fastest access point, the most antennas, the largest number of simultaneous clients, the latest technology, etc. 

In Wi-Fi, “shiny” is essentially all about speed.   We are an industry obsessed with faster and faster data rates, pushing more and more data through the unbound medium of radio frequency:  
  • In 802.11n, we introduced MIMO, which allows multiple data streams to be transmitted simultaneously from different antennas.  These different streams are heard by all of the antennas on the receiver, and then mathematically separated to reconstruct the data streams.  While this technique works, it requires a lot more processing capabilities on both the transmitter and the receiver, and it is the limit of what we can do to increase raw speeds.  
  • Next came the need for a throughput fix, and the industry focus on improving airtime efficiency to achieve faster total data rates.   In 802.11ac wave 2, we use even more complex mathematical techniques to do multi-user MIMO (MU-MIMO), where an access point literally transmits independent messages to multiple receiver clients simultaneously.   
  • The standard currently in development by the IEEE, 802.11ax, doubles down on Wi-Fi complexity to provide even more airtime efficiencies with bi-directional MU-MIMO and overlapping channel utilization.

Clearly these innovations come at a price: complexity. And when we increase the complexity of a system, we fundamentally make it more fragile and less robust.  When a system violates the KISS rule (keep it simple, stupid), it is more prone to errors due to normal environmental variations and less likely to be able to handle and recover from problems elegantly.   

When a system is more complex, there are more things that can (and do) go wrong, and the more the system relies upon everything working correctly to even function.  The “overhead” in Wi-Fi is not present by chance – it is architected into the 802.11 protocol to ensure that information is transmitted and received reliably.  When you attempt to simultaneously increase complexity and reduce overhead, you increase the number of problems that can occur and decrease your ability to handle and recover from potential problems that may develop.  Intuitively, therefore, a more complex system is much easier to break and is less reliable than a simple system.

SMBs, and Their Providers, Pay the Price

While this need for new and shiny has driven amazing technological innovation, it has long since surpassed the actual performance needs of most Wi-Fi networks, especially in the small-to-medium business (SMB) sector.  While the SMB sector covers a lot of different vertical markets, the fundamental requirements for a Wi-Fi network in this space are as follows:
  • Ubiquitous and stable coverage
  • Reliable performance
  • Moderate numbers of simultaneous users and bandwidth
  • Low failure rates (MTBF) & fast repair times (MTTR)

Note the use of the terms “reliable,” “stable,” and “moderate,” and the requirements for high MTBF and low MTTR.   Fundamentally, SMB Wi-Fi needs to “just work.”  It should not be variable, it should not fail very often, and if/when it does fail, it should be really easy and quick to get back online again.  

These most critical SMB requirements are not only inconsistent with, but diametrically opposed to, new and shiny Wi-Fi.   SMB owners need to know they can rely upon their Wi-Fi networks, and the people who install and service them. Period.

For the managed service providers (MSPs) who deliver IT installation and maintenance services, reliability and ease of service for Wi-Fi networks are also fundamental requirements.   An MSP requires three things to be successful with Wi-Fi:
  • A robust and reliable network that essentially takes care of itself
  • Repeatability across multiple customers
  • Recurring monthly service monitoring fees  

MSPs make money by being able to install a network quickly and not receive excessive maintenance calls once it’s installed. When problems do occur, they need to be able to resolve them quickly, preferably without a costly truck roll to the customer site.

Recognition of these dynamics is making its way to the core of managed Wi-Fi services. New providers such as Uplevel Systems have designed managed services platforms specifically for the needs of IT consulting firms needing to automate configuration and remote management as much as possible. By combining feature-rich hardware and cloud-based monitoring and troubleshooting, Uplevel equips consultants with varying degrees of familiarity with Wi-Fi to provision secure and robust services with a few choice shiny and new “nice to haves” like easily managed guest access. 

With storage, backup, security and VPNs available on the same platform, the basic value proposition for MSPs is “Simplify, upsell, repeat.” The appeal of keeping it simple—while still delivering better quality than consumer-grade technology – proves ideal for SMBs where all the glitters is more red tape than gold. Or green. 

1 comment:

  1. I would suggest reading the CWNA study guide by CWNP for a good overall breadth of knowledge regarding Wi-Fi and the various technologies and considerations that go into making it work.