Best practices for managing WLANs: The more you know, the more control you can have

By John Cox

A recent survey of IT managers confirmed that the more you know about your WLAN, the more you can do with it and the better you can make it.

The survey, by Aberdeen Group, compares practices and results of companies represented by 315 IT respondents. "Best-in-class" companies reported consistently higher results in performance measures compared with "industry average" companies and "laggards" in the study.

Detailed, systematic WLAN management practices were a key factor in the higher performance scores.

For example, the top performers were far more likely to have and enforce policies for centralized WLAN management, and twice as likely to assign trained IT professionals to specifically manage the wireless network. Of the best-in-class companies, 88% had policies for centralized WLAN management, compared with 58% of the average companies and 52% of the laggards. Having IT staff that know WLAN technology was the standard practice of 53% of the top scorers, but that was the case for just 30% of the average scorers and only 17% of the low scorers.

Nearly all of the best-in-class performers had manual procedures for radio-frequency site surveys, compared with 65% of middle scorers and 58% of low scorers. In addition, 44% of the top performers monitor the overall wireless network at least monthly, compared with 33% of the average performers and 25% of the lowest performers.

* Wireless nets are a specialized discipline; so is managing them. Plan on getting your networking staff trained in both, using vendor offerings, third-party services and industry/conference opportunities.

* Create a plan for managing the wireless net as a whole, over time, recognizing that the net will grow (in number of access points, users and traffic), will have to be maintained, will have to be secured against evolving threats, and may well become the primary client access to the corporate net.

* Focus your WLAN design and deployment on users. Start with a user survey that clarifies where users are, what kinds of data and how much data they need to send and receive, and what applications need to be supported. How might those requirements change over the foreseeable future?

* Frequent, live monitoring of the radio spectrum is essential to securing and optimizing the WLAN, either by means of embedded monitoring tools from your infrastructure WLAN vendor or from third parties. Evaluate the tools, train on the one(s) you choose, and use them often.

* Map the exact physical location of every access point and WLAN bridging device, and have duplicate maps available. Managing is easier when you can find the devices that need managing.

* If your WLAN makes use of RADIUS or other external authentication systems, make sure these are backed up along with their databases and links to directory services.

* Be systematic, thorough and clear in documenting for WLAN management.

* If you're thinking of running VoIP over wireless, you face a new set of management challenges, and a higher level of urgency when problems arise, if you want to ensure high-quality, reliable voice calls.

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