Finding a Holistic Solution

Introduction

Prior to writing your RFP, as you assess your district’s needs, it is important that you understand the types of product vendors in the market. This section summarizes the different types of product vendors and explains the supplemental components of procuring a wireless solution that you will need to evaluate before finalizing your requirements list.

Types of Product Vendors

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.

  • Manufacturers (e.g., Aerohive, Aruba (HP)) often have an option to purchase directly from them.
  • A Value-added Reseller (VAR) (e.g., CDW or World Wide Technology) sells equipment from one or more manufacturers. They also typically add value to the sale by offering design, configuration, implementation, or maintenance services, as needed. Product pricing from a VAR is similar to what is available from the manufacturer but may include an additional fee for any added services.
  • A Managed Service Provider (MSP) operates and maintains the networking equipment for you. They will often own the equipment and pass the cost on to you through a recurring fee. Typically, a district enters into a contract with an MSP for a certain time period and pay the MSP a set fee to maintain the network.

Managed Wi-Fi Providers

Many districts do not have the time or expertise to manage their own wireless networks. Instead, they outsource this function to a Managed Service Provider (MSP) who designs, implements, and manages the network for them. This is referred to as Managed Wi-Fi.

Managed Wi-Fi is a turnkey service that an MSP offers that requires very little time or effort on your part. After interviewing you about your network requirements and expectations, the MSP designs the network, purchases the equipment, implements the network, and is responsible for the day-to-day management. In addition to Wi-Fi, MSPs also offer managed network services for the entire network. You may not need all these services, however, and you can alternatively choose to outsource just one or two activities to the MSP, like design or purchasing.

Managed Wi-Fi is a good option for districts that may not have a dedicated technical staff or whose technical staff is overloaded with other responsibilities like a large 1:1 client roll-out. This convenient service does come with a cost premium, however. The MSP will typically purchase and own the equipment at your schools, but you will be charged for the equipment as part of the recurring cost. Although you may experience some sticker shock when you are presented with the recurring cost of a Managed Wi-Fi network, you should consider the total cost of ownership of running your own network, including the design and implementation cost and the staff time required to manage and maintain the network over its lifecycle. Sometimes the decision comes down to whether your budget is more friendly toward capital expenditures or operational expenditures.

If you do decide to move forward with a Managed Wi-Fi solution, be sure to spend a lot of time with your MSP to align on mutual expectations, escalation procedures, how much visibility and control you expect, and service level agreements (SLAs). Your are putting a lot of responsibility in the hands of the MSP, so there needs to be trust on both sides of the partnership.

Turn-key OptionsBenefitsConsiderationsPricingOther OfferingsConcerns
Network reviewPredictable OpEx vs CapEx modelBuilding materialsMonitor onlyIn-house staffingReliant on Internet to manage
Network designCompletely managedAP placementsPer deviceLocation appliancesVendors typically own the equipment
Equipment procurementElastic scalabilityChannel width & assignmentsPer userSecurity appliancesRecurring costs (OpEx)
Network implementation24x7 supportTransmission power levelsTieredManagement systemsPricey
Simple deploymentsDisabling "b" and/or 2.4 GHz vs 80 MHz channels
Web-based administration20 MHz vs 40 Mhz vs 80 Mhz channels
Customizable reports / dashboardsAbility to avoid co-channel interference
SLAs

Licenses and Licensing Models

Licenses and licensing models can be extremely confusing for customers who are new to a particular wireless product line. The purpose of the license and the services provided under a license can vary by product line. Some appliances require a license that simply allows an AP to associate to the appliance. Other solutions’ licenses enable access to a cloud controller, firmware updates, software updates, and technical support. Each manufacturer’s model is different, so you should talk with your vendor about required licenses to help you fully understand the ongoing cost of your new wireless network.

Most wireless manufacturers require you to purchase a license for APs (in addition to the APs themselves), sometimes on a recurring basis. Some charge a license fee every year, others every three years. These license fees can be a significant percentage of the overall cost so it is important for you to calculate and understand the licensing costs for the entire life of a wireless network.

Licenses are commonly required for the following equipment:

  • Cloud-based controller or controller-less systems typically require a per AP license, which registers the AP with the online management system.
  • Physical controller-based systems also typically require a per-AP license, however, this license is generally less expensive than the cloud-based controller (somewhat offsetting the cost of the controller itself).
  • Additional systems that provide advanced services on top of what the controller provides also can require a per AP or per user license. Location appliances, security appliances, or management systems are examples of these additional systems. When talking with your vendor about advanced services, be sure to ask whether the service requires additional hardware, software, or licenses.

Many manufacturers will offer a discount if licenses are purchased upfront for the duration of the contract or on a multi-year basis rather than annually. For example, the license for a single AP for one year may be $150, but if purchased for three years in advance the cost may be $360 equating to $120 per year. No matter if the licenses are purchased on a per-year or multi-year basis, the license usually has the same functionality. Depending on whether you have the budget available in the first year, it can be a good investment to purchase licenses up front.

Maintenance and Support Considerations

The decision to purchase a maintenance and support contract is often a tough one, especially if you are on a tight budget. Unfortunately, this is one of those situations where saving money in one place can often cost more in the long run. Maintenance costs on certain pieces of equipment like controllers can be quite expensive, but hardware does fail. If your controller fails and you do not have maintenance, you will be forced to purchase a new controller and justify the extended downtime. Alternatively, if you have a maintenance contract on that controller and there is a hardware failure, most manufacturers will ship you a new controller free of charge within a couple of days (depending on your location). If your wireless network is considered a mission-critical service for your district, you should consider purchasing a maintenance contract on the controllers.

Maintenance contracts may not be cost-effective for all pieces of equipment, however. EducationSuperHighway recommends that you purchase maintenance contracts for controllers, management systems, and additional services appliances, but not APs. Most installations will have such a high number of APs that purchasing maintenance for all of them becomes cost-prohibitive. Instead, we recommend purchasing an extra 3-5% of APs to act as spares. That way, if an AP fails, you can simply replace it immediately with the spare on hand.

There are many different flavors of maintenance and support contracts. They offer varying levels of hardware replacement, technical support, and software support. Depending on how urgently you may need support or hardware replacement, many manufacturers offer replacements delivered to your door from 2-48 hours after an outage is reported (availability dependent on location). Logically, the maintenance costs increase as the delivery times decrease, so many districts choose a “Next Business Day” contract to stay within budget.

It is also important to be aware that some manufacturers offer lifetime warranty on their equipment which includes maintenance and support. This can be a significant cost savings so it is worth asking your vendor which solutions include these services as part of the warranty.

Quality of Support

Many maintenance contracts also include technical support, which is critical for the long-term stability of your network. Some manufacturers are known for having stellar technical support, while others are lacking. Since this is such an important factor, you should ask your vendor for customer references. Most vendors will be happy to provide you with a reference and many will even provide you the reference of another similarly sized or similarly located school district. Ask the references about their purchasing experience, support availability and quality, and consider adjusting your maintenance purchases accordingly.

Another way to decipher the quality of a technical support group is to ask your manufacturer directly about the quality of their support and how it compares with competitors in the industry. Typically, you will get an answer that emphasizes their own strengths and tactfully highlights competitors’ weaknesses. Of course, much of this information can be taken with a grain of salt, but sometimes they can surface useful stories.