There are a few conversations that you should have with prospective product vendors if you are considering a major upgrade. These are big picture conversations that can help you focus on the best solutions that will support the network and device strategy in your district in the most cost-effective manner. A product vendor is any company that sells networking equipment. Depending on the type of service you need, you will want select one of the following vendor types. Keep in mind that some vendors only offer equipment from a certain set of manufacturers. If you are keenly interested in a certain manufacturer’s solution, you may have to shop around.
Before writing your RFP, it is important to perform a gap analysis to determine what wireless equipment needs to be replaced now and what equipment, if any, can remain in place for another year or two.
Take a quick survey of your existing network to determine if any of your APs can remain installed where they are, or if they can be repurposed and installed elsewhere. For example, maybe you have some out-buildings where there are very few regular Wi-Fi users. If you are on a tight budget, it may be possible to keep the existing APs in these low use areas, and only upgrade the APs in areas that have more demanding users. In a year or two, when you expect to have more room in your budget, you can go ahead and upgrade these last APs.
Once you have a good understanding of how much of the network needs to be replaced, you will have a better idea how to estimate the cost of the new network and understand the full solution.
As you are performing a gap analysis, pay attention to how your VLANs are implemented on your network today. If you are considering moving from a tunneled controller-based architecture, to a cloud-based or controller-less architecture, you should consider that the VLAN structure on your LAN may need to be changed to support the new architecture. If wireless traffic was previously tunneled to the central controller before being placed on the LAN, the student VLAN may or may not extend all the way to the LAN edge. If transitioning to a cloud-based architecture, the AP will place student traffic directly on the access switch so the student VLAN will need to be trunked all the way out to the edge. For many networks, this transition creates a significant amount of work; this should be considered before you make a decision to change architectures.
As you discuss features and products with the vendor, make sure they are familiar with your district’s existing infrastructure and network design. As part of the RFP, you should require the vendor perform an in-depth site survey and propose a design according to the survey. However, taking the vendor on a brief tour of your environment upfront can help with preliminary information gathering. By walking a prospective vendor around the district office and a couple schools, the vendor can learn about the types of equipment, cabling, and power used in the district, as well as other details that are important to consider in a design. Once a vendor has a good sense of the overall architecture, they will be in a better position to explain how their offerings fit in your existing infrastructure.
This initial site survey is a fairly quick process and should only take an hour or two. Based on the information gathered during this survey, the vendor can prioritize their offerings, but they cannot create a wireless design. A good wireless design requires a full active site survey, which can take several days depending on the size and number of schools receiving upgrades.