Introduction

The management platform, whether it is a dedicated appliance or cloud based software, is generally what sets some manufacturers apart from the others. The tools available, ease of use, customization, and access to information available via the management interface are what typically turn first time customers into return customers. Experienced network administrators do not want to simply install a wireless network and let it run until there is a problem. Most will want to watch the type, amount, and patterns of traffic and users to help make proactive rather than reactive adjustments across their network. A good management platform can help make your wireless network plan, install, maintenance, and reporting easy.

What you will learn:

  • The value of a single management interface
  • Additional management tools like site survey and heat maps
  • The value of dynamic transmit power and channel adjustments on an AP

Single Management Interface

Managing the wireless network on a per controller or per AP basis is time consuming and complex. A solution with the capability to be managed entirely from a single, browser-based management interface is highly recommended if your network requires more than a single controller. Since this feature is highly recommended, you should consider whether your favorite solution includes this single management interface as part of their solution or whether you need to pay extra for it. If it is not included, be sure that there is enough added functionality to justify the additional charge. Otherwise, consider looking at solutions whose management interface is included.

Manufacturer Terminology: Single Management Interface
AerohiveHiveManager
Aruba (HP)*Airwave
Cisco*Cisco Prime Infrastructure
Extreme*NetSight
HP*Intelligent Management Center (IMC) Wireless Services
Cisco MerakiCisco Meraki Cloud Management
Meru (Fortinet)*E[z]RF Network Manager
Zebra (Motorola)*AirDefense Infrastructure Management
Ruckus (Brocade)*FlexMaster
UbiquitiUnifi Controller
Xirrus*Xirrus Management System (XMS)
* Additional license or product required

Role Based Access Control

Role-based access allows different users or user groups different levels of access to a network or server system. Controller and management interfaces should have role-based access controls that allow different functional and security permission settings for different types of users, like help desk technicians versus network administrators, to prevent accidental configuration changes.

Zero/Low Touch Configuration

Most manufacturers have intelligence built into their products such that an AP can be plugged into a network and provision itself without any configuration per AP. Any amount of configuration on a per AP basis can be extremely time consuming and logistically complex for large deployments. The ability to install an AP without making any configuration changes to each device can save a district a considerable amount of time and money.

Policy Management

The ability to apply security policies to groups of users based on user group, location of user, or type of device can reduce the amount of time needed to manage a wireless network. This is especially useful in two management areas: security and bandwidth.

Security policy management allows you to apply different security settings to different groups of users. This means, for example, allowing the accounting group access to the VLAN where their files and applications are housed, but not students or allowing teachers and students access to the printers, but not guests.

Bandwidth policy management gives administrators more granular and immediate control of the bandwidth. In most school settings this is incredibly important. You don’t want Facebook to be utilizing a large percentage of the bandwidth while students are trying to stream an educational video. You may also want to change bandwidth policies throughout the week or year. For example, during testing weeks, you may want to create a special testing SSID which has unlimited bandwidth and limit the bandwidth the other student and teacher SSIDs have until testing is over.

Monitoring and Reporting

Monitoring and reporting is an important piece of a wireless solution but is often overlooked for performance features. The ability to monitor the system on a client, AP, application, and port level makes managing the network much less complex and allows network administrators to proactively manage rather than reactively manage the network. Reporting is also important because it allows administrators to demonstrate to users and providers that an issue exists or has been resolved.

  • Usage graphs help network administrators easily see if there are any APs, clients, or applications that are abusing their privileges and take appropriate action. The graphs can also help discover viruses or other issues on the network.

Predictive Heat Mapping

Predictive heat mapping, also known as predictive site survey, aids network administrators with planning and managing a wireless network. Many of the management systems include the ability to upload floor plans, input building material and wall location information, then place APs on the map to create a predictive coverage map (predictive site survey) of the wireless network. For planning purposes, this type of predictive model is useful to make a rough estimate about the placement and quantity of APs on the network, but it does not replace an active site survey and detailed design. This predictive model shows, with about 80-90% accuracy, what the coverage looks like given the configured floor plan and AP placement. In addition to helping with planning, this feature also allows administrators to view their channel mapping and client density in real time.

Manufacturer Terminology: Predictive Heat Mapping
AerohiveWi-Fi Planner Tool
Aruba (HP)AirWave
VisualRF
Cisco*via Prime Infrastructure
Extreme*Wireless Management Suite (WMS)
HP*HP RF Manager
Cisco MerakiConnected Mobile Experiences (CMX)
Meru (Fortinet)*E[z]RF Planner
Zebra (Motorola)*LANPlanner
Ruckus (Brocade)*ZonePlanner
UbiquitiHeat Map
XirrusWifi Designer
* Additional hardware, software, or license required

Active Site Survey Software

In addition to the predictive site survey described above, there are other types of site surveys, namely passive and active. When planning a network upgrade, whether large or small, an active site survey is critical toward achieving the coverage and performance needed to support your educational technology goals. Simply replacing every old AP with a new one without re-evaluating placement is not a good upgrade strategy. During an active site survey, a technician walks around your building and into every room while running site survey software to record the signal strength, noise floor, and BSSID information at certain points on the floor plan. In addition to the walk around, the surveyor will ask you questions about your client types, client density, applications, roaming patterns, expected growth over the next three to five years, etc. Based on this survey and usage information, an engineer will translate the data into a design. With this design, you will know where to place the APs, and thus, how many APs are required to support your bandwidth goals.

Unless someone on your team is an experienced wireless engineer, the site survey is best if outsourced to a professional. Designing wireless networks can be very complex and misplaced APs can have a huge impact on user experience.

While most wireless technicians use expensive site survey tools, some wireless management solutions often have site survey tools built into them if you do want to give it a try. Note: it is fairly rare for manufacturers to include site survey functionality in their systems, so this feature should be considered a "bonus feature" and not used as a primary requirement when evaluating different products. Management systems with site survey functionality include the following:

Manufacturer Terminology: Site Survey
Aerohive*via Fluke Networks
Zebra (Motorola)*SiteScanner
Ruckus (Brocade)S.W.A.T.
XirrusWi-Fi Designer
* Additional hardware, software, or license required

Spectrum Analyzer

When troubleshooting a wireless network, it can be very useful to scan the RF energy in the physical environment where issues are being reported. An RF scan and analysis can be done by a spectrum analyzer, and districts of every size need to have access to this type of tool for planning and troubleshooting purposes. Whether it is built into the AP or a product that can be used in conjunction with a laptop, the ability to see the RF environment is critical. Districts with more than ten APs will benefit from the ability to use the APs as spectrum analyzers either on demand or with a dedicated radio.

  • Analyzer mode - Many APs have the ability to switch their radios from client service mode to spectrum analyzer mode, allowing technicians to watch RF energy in real-time from any remote location.
  • Dedicated radio - Many APs have a third radio which is always in spectrum analyzer mode, recording RF activity 24/7. This recording can then be accessed by technicians at any time and played back to help them troubleshoot an issue that has been reported. This additional spectrum analyzer radio can be extremely useful when troubleshooting a wireless environment, but also considerably increases the cost of an AP.
Manufacturer Terminology: Spectrum Analyzer
AerohiveSpectrum Analysis
Aruba (HP)*Spectrum Analyzer Module
Cisco*Spectrum Expert, CleanAir
Extreme--
HPWi-Fi Clear Connect
Cisco Meraki*Spectrum Analysis
Meru (Fortinet)*Spectrum Manager
Zebra (Motorola)*AirDefense
Ruckus (Brocade)--
Ubiquiti--
XirrusSpectrum Analysis
* Additional hardware, software, or license required

Spectrum Management

Some APs track interference over time, and pre-emptively switch channels to avoid predicted interference. This can be a useful feature, but if the AP’s dynamic channel adjustment algorithm is good, this feature is not necessary.

Unified Access Layer Management

Key Decision: Do You Need Unified Access Layer Management?
Overview

Many manufacturers are moving toward a unified access layer - meaning access switches and wireless access can be configured and managed via the same platform.

Considerations

This collapsing of management platforms can save the district time and money both in the purchase of physical appliances or software and time training staff to use the management platform. However, the benefits of the unified access management are not so great that a district should consider replacing switching infrastructure simply to accomplish this unification.

Recommendations

If your district has an up-to-date switching infrastructure, keep it. If your district is upgrading both the switching and wireless infrastructure at the same time, unified access layer management is worth considering but should not weigh too heavily in your decision.

Manufacturer Terminology: Unified Access Layer Management
AerohiveHiveOS
Aruba (HP)*AirWave
Cisco*Unified Access
Extreme*NetSight
HP*Intelligent Management Center (IMC)
Cisco MerakiCisco Meraki Dashboard
Meru (Fortinet)--
Zebra (Motorola)Unified Access Platforms
Ruckus (Brocade)--
Ubiquiti--
Xirrus*Xirrus Management System
* Additional software or license required

Dynamic Transmit Power

Dynamic transmit power allows an AP to dynamically change its transmit power to intelligently increase or decrease coverage cell size or adjust to changing environmental conditions. This feature is useful if you have a dense AP installation because the APs will realize that their neighbor APs are close and reduce their transmit power which decreases the cell size (coverage area). At the same time, if an AP fails, its neighbors can increase power to mitigate the effects caused by coverage holes.

Manufacturer Terminology: Dynamic Transmit Power
AerohiveAerohive Channel Selection Protocol (ASCP)
Aruba (HP)Adaptive Radio Management (ARM)
CiscoRadio Resource Management (RRM)
ExtremeAutomatic Transmit Power
HPWi-Fi Clear Connect and RRM
Cisco MerakiAuto RF
Meru (Fortinet)--
Zebra (Motorola)Smart RF
Ruckus (Brocade)Dynamic Power
UbiquitiAuto Tx Power
XirrusAuto Cell

Dynamic Channel Adjustment

The RF environment in a given location is constantly changing throughout the day and week. The microwave in the teacher's lounge creates RF interference every day during lunch time, teachers might bring their own "wireless router" in and plug it into their classroom to provide what they perceive as better coverage, your neighboring Starbucks might install a new wireless system that leaks RF interference into your space. Most wireless APs are able to detect occasional in-channel interference on a radio and dynamically adjust that radio’s channel to provide consistent performance in the presence of interference. This is an extremely important feature because it allows the network to fix itself without any effort from you, starting at the source of the interference and rippling out to the rest of the APs.

Manufacturer Terminology: Dynamic Channel Adjustment
AerohiveAerohive Channel Selection Protocol (ACSP)
Aruba (HP)Adaptive Radio Management (ARM)
CiscoRRM, Self Healing, CleanAir
ExtremeDynamic Radio Management
HPWi-Fi Clear Connect and RRM
Cisco MerakiAuto RF
Meru (Fortinet)--
Zebra (Motorola)Smart RF
Ruckus (Brocade)ChannelFly
Ubiquiti--
XirrusDynamic Channel

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