Initial Vendor Conversations

Introduction

There are a few initial conversations 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. These initial conversations ideally should take place prior to issuing your RFP and can help you get a better sense of your ideal architecture and the short-list of vendors you invite to bid on your RFP. This will ensure you don’t waste your time in the RFP process with vendors who don’t offer the products and services you are looking for.

Architecture and Design

In the initial conversations with your vendor, you should discuss your bandwidth and density needs, management needs, and high-level WAN infrastructure. After covering these topics, you should have a good idea of the best architecture for your district. Now that you have read the Common Architectures section, you are in a good position to lead this conversation with your vendor and ask appropriate questions.

Questions you should ask:

  • Given the district’s bandwidth, density, and management needs, which controller or cloud-based product lines does the vendor offer that meet these needs?
  • In the vendor’s opinion, what features or functionality is gained if the district decides to install a physical controller? Is it worth the additional time investment for installation and management?
  • If a controller architecture is being considered, will all traffic be tunneled to the controller or should your district implement split tunneling? Why?
  • Are redundant controllers needed and why?
  • If traffic is tunneled to the controller, what happens if the WAN link or link to the controller goes down? What types of features are disabled when this happens?
  • If a cloud-based architecture is being considered, what happens to user traffic and control traffic if the cloud controller becomes unreachable?

Some manufacturers prefer certain designs and every consultant has her own design bias, which may lead you in one direction or another. There’s nothing wrong with that, but you are more likely to get the best network by understanding why the vendor is making a particular suggestion and pushing back on any suggestions you don’t agree with.

Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) Support

With the increasing adoption of 1:1 and BYOD in districts, BYOD support as part of the the wireless solution can save time for both IT and help desk teams. One piece of BYOD support is Mobile Device Management (MDM), which is sometimes an add-on feature of a wireless system. A good MDM might be any combination of a few components the wireless infrastructure, MDM software, and supplicant (software installed on user devices)—all working together to manage devices and usage policies. If you are looking for an MDM solution, talk to the manufacturers about their offering and find out if the built-in features of the wireless products are enough to meet your needs.

Manufacturer Terminology: BYOD Support
Aerohive*Integration with AirWatch and JAMF
Aruba (HP)*ClearPass
Cisco*BYOD Smart Solutions
Extreme*Mobile IAM
HP*Mobile Delivery Service Platform
Cisco MerakiSystems Manager
Meru (Fortinet)*Meru (Fortinet) Connect
Zebra (Motorola)*Mobility Services Platform
Ruckus (Brocade)Ruckus (Brocade) BYOD
Ubiquiti--
Xirrus*Integration with AirWatch
* Additional hardware, software, or license required

Configuration Complexity and Resources

All of the features that come as a part of modern enterprise wireless solutions have added work and complexity to the implementation and maintenance processes. The configuration complexity can be a barrier for customers who do not have experience with that particular product line. Discuss this with your vendor and research configuration guides to determine the complexity of the configuration and whether the configuration looks like something your team can handle. It is also advisable to talk with your vendor to determine if there are trainings that you or your team can attend to quickly get to the point that you can maintain (and possibly install) the system yourself.

History of the Product Line and Manufacturer

When looking at possible solutions, research and ask the manufacturer about their history. Are they new to the industry or do they have an established product line and market share? Are they coming out with new product lines or have they gone stagnant? How often do they release bug fixes or new software/firmware? You don’t want to invest in a vendor who is not investing in keeping their wireless system up to date with the latest technologies or who is not financially stable.

Another important consideration is whether the wireless products will seamlessly integrate with other product lines from the manufacturer, which could be a problem if the wireless product line was recently acquired from another company. A good example of where this might be important is if a unified wired/wireless management interface or tightly integrated security across wired and wireless networks are important to you.