Wireless as primary net? Not till management matures

Network managers today rely on their wireless LANs to support end users and critical applications, but they don't plan on unplugging the wired net just yet

Wireless LAN technologies promise many positives, including flexible network availability and enhanced client mobility. But never do wireless proponents claim the unwired environment will be easy to manage.

"A network management system that only handles wired will be of little value going forward, and vendors realize customers want all the functions of a wired net in their wireless rollout," says Craig Mathias, principal at Farpoint Group. "Management will be the hottest topic in wireless over the next two years."

WLAN management today

WLAN management products today primarily come from wireless equipment vendors. Companies such as Aruba Networks, Cisco, Meru Networks and Trapeze top the minds of industry watchers who say these vendors provide the most up-to-date technology available to manage wireless environments -- as long as the environment is vendor-specific.

"Equipment vendors manage their own wireless because most companies have standardized on a single WLAN vendor, but that can be good or bad going forward," says Zeus Kerravala, senior vice president of enterprise research at Yankee Group. "Wired nets can be mostly standardized too, but management software for wired covers heterogeneous environments. Multi-vendor WLAN management needs to be improved upon to start."

Heterogeneous WLAN management could be coming since Aruba Networks picked up AirWave Wireless, a somewhat vendor-agnostic WLAN management company, earlier this year. Yet industry watchers doubt the trend will take off across all WLAN vendors or third-party software makers.

"Most of the management solutions are directly tied to the wireless product, and they are decent for what they do," says Brad Noblet, an independent consultant. "It is difficult for vendors to develop an independent solution because wireless technology advances quickly, and vendors want to keep an edge with their tools, so integration with third-parties might not be top of mind."

Vendors must also hone their security skills as more enterprise network managers are looking to link their WLAN management strategy directly with security initiatives such as network access control and policy-based management. Vendors today are enabling security capabilities to tie back into the wired network, therefore increasing protection for both environments.

"People in network management went the extra mile on incorporating security into WLAN management," Kerravala says.

For instance, wireless vendors have the technology to detect a rogue access point, disable the port it is tied to and prevent that access point or any clients using it from gaining unauthorized access.

"Managing wireless must combine security and then tie it back to the wired LAN solution," says Chris Silva, a senior analyst with Forrester Research. "The [most] common complaints of wireless are reliability and security -- and the costs -- so if vendors can provide more reliability and show consistency of connection as well as ensure robust security, customers will feel less uncertain of where they stand with their WLAN."

Page Break

Management challenges

Enterprise network managers report that WLANs pose the same management challenges as their wired counterparts -- multiplied by 10.

For one, disassociating network availability from a specific switch, cable or port increases the difficulty of troubleshooting performance and connectivity problems. Diagnosing poor application or client performance also remains a challenge because it is nearly impossible to recreate the exact scenario that occurred to learn the root-cause of the degradation.

"The wired net is static and each device has a history that goes a long way toward troubleshooting performance problems. A port on a switch can tell a lot about a network connection," says John Tuman, director of network services at WakeMed Health & Hospitals in the US. "There is little history to tap into with wireless, and most performance problems are reported long after the fact, both of which make it very difficult to find or reproduce the error and stop it from happening again."

Tuman upgraded from an older pre-802.11 WLAN to a controller-based WLAN from Aruba Networks in 2005. More than 800 Aruba thin access points are distributed in 14 WakeMed buildings, with nine Aruba controllers. About 350 wireless phones are linked to the "nurse call" system, which has streamlined voice communications between patients and nurses, and among nurses and physicians. Another 300 phones are used by doctors, IT staff, administrators and facilities personnel. He previously used Aruba's management platform, but now Tuman says he is looking at AirWave's suite because it offers a potential improvement over what he has now.

The AirWare purchase brought to Aruba an agnostic WLAN management application, meaning it can manage different brands of equipment, and one of even fewer that can manage different types of wireless networks including mesh and WiMAX. For Tuman, he hopes the AirWave buy will provide more granular details around coverage maps and reduce some manual tuning that still must be done on access points.

"I'd like to see more intelligence in the tools, for them to have more management savvy," he says. "The coverage maps are not gospel, they give you a coarse understanding of what the coverage is, but we still need to send someone out to verify coverage and manually tune access points."

On top of performing advanced wireless network analysis manually, network managers must still take into account myriad physical considerations such as access point location, construction and microwave oven use -- just to name a few -- to ensure their non-physical network continues to keep users connected.

"With wireless, we have to deal with outside influences causing interference and rogue access points popping up. Things not connected to our network, things in the air, cause the most performance problems and could bring the wireless net down," says Matt Barber, network analyst at Morrisville State College in New York. (See the latest in our ongoing coverage of Morrisville's pioneering 802.11n WLAN deployment.)

Barber has 720 AP320 802.11n dual radio Meru Networks access points installed, supporting about 3,300 students and 1,000 to 1,500 clients at any given time. He uses Meru's management software provided in the E(z)RF Application suite and says he'd like to see a better interface and dashboard from the vendor. He also keeps the wired network management stats provided by the Enterasys NetSight application separate because the Enterasys console couldn't give him the details he is able to see from Meru's tool.

"Keeping the wired network up is critical because it feeds all the access points. Without it, the wireless net is useless. But wired and wireless have to be managed by two completely separate tools," he explains. "I would not be able to get enough wireless-specific information, but the idea of centralization is a good thing. It helps to be able to look at my wired or wireless net from anywhere."

Page Break

Time to push for improvements

While many network managers are embracing wireless -- a Forrester Research survey of 1,000 IT decision makers showed that more than 50 per cent of North American and European enterprises have Wi-Fi technology in-house -- management shortcomings are keeping the technology in a secondary role.

Until management capabilities catch up with wireless technology, industry watchers say enterprise IT shops will continue to rely primarily on their wired network for critical services and overlay wireless technology to offer a variety of applications and device support.

"For wireless to become the standard, costs would have to be driven way down, wireless performance would have to be equal to or greater than the wired net, and some sort of event or natural disaster would have to wipe out the previous network to justify not pulling cable again," Yankee Group's Kerravala says. "That said, managing wireless should be in every aspect consistent with the wired approach, from security policies to user access privileges, all the way to the expectations of reliability and availability."

On the flip side, the same experts say third-party management software makers won't step up to take on WLAN management until end-users demand the capabilities in their primary network management console.

"Users have seen the benefits of working unwired. It simply makes business sense to give users the capability to compute, collaborate, and create from wherever they are," Forrester's Silva says. "But the WLAN is not considered a primary network or even a mission-critical network, and until it becomes a top priority for end users, third-party management vendors like HP or CA aren't going to see the need to provide tighter integration between their products and those from wireless equipment vendors."

Most network managers balk at the idea of unplugging the wired network and relying on a WLAN because they know firsthand how difficult it is to manage availability, connectivity and performance with the technology available today.

John Turner, director of networks and systems at Brandeis University in the US, deployed about 200 Aruba AP-70 dual-radio multi-purpose 802.11 a/b/g access points across 100 buildings. The wireless environment is expected to serve some 7,000 students, faculty and other staff, but with the difficulty of locating access points in dorms and other buildings, users are advised that wired is the primary network.

"We need more diagnostic tools and more expert analysis built into the products to really troubleshoot access point and client performance issues so that we can push these types of connectivity and availability problems down to our first-line response people," Turner says. "I set expectations for our end users. The WLAN is an auxiliary network to the wired net. If you are in your office or dorm room, wired is the premier network. The notion of the wireless office is coming, but I am going to hold off on it until I can say with certainty it will be as available or more than the wired net."