Spring Cleaning Your Wireless Network

March 17, 2016, 1:00 am

By Jay White, Product Manager

Spring is upon us and it’s a perfect time to clean up your wireless network. With the increasing demand and sheer number of wireless devices on your network, it’s imperative to keep your wireless network optimized. Here are a few steps that can help you ensure an optimal wireless experience.

Check Your RF Environment

Designing a wireless network is not a trivial task. In many cases it requires the use of high tech tools and experienced wireless engineers. However, there are a few simple, straight-forward activities you can do to optimize your RF environment.

Map Your Access Points

Create a map of your APs’ physical locations. You can use a building floor plan and simply draw a dot where each AP is installed. This is a great way to visually see how your network is mapped out.

Evaluate Your Physical Surroundings

In addition to mapping your APs, it is important to remember that RF is just like any other wave; it can be absorbed, reflected, or redirected. Your physical surroundings can ultimately impact your RF network. Objects such as floors, ceilings, walls, desks, vehicles, pallet racks, people, and temperature/weather can all impact a wireless signal.

Additional Considerations
  • Is your ceiling made of metal? Metal is a reflector of RF. It can create undesired RF signals in your network (i.e. “noise”).
  • Do you have a drop ceiling? Ceiling tiles are absorbers of RF. This means that your signal can be absorbed and will not travel as far.

Check Your AP's Configuration

Once you have evaluated your RF network, it’s time to look at your AP configuration. There are all kinds of buttons and settings within an AP that can affect how your wireless network performs. Here are a few of the major things to look for:

RF Channels

Which Channels are Your APs Using?

There are three non-overlapping channels for use in the 2.4 GHz unlicensed spectrum. It’s likely that devices such as cordless phones, wireless security cameras, and microwave ovens are creating havoc in the 2.4GHz band.

By comparison, there are between four and 24 non-overlapping 5GHz channels available for use with Wi-Fi (depending on where you are located in the world). The 5GHz band is generally underutilized in most RF installations. Also, with the evolving technologies of 802.11n and 802.11ac, channel bonding is becoming popular for high throughput applications. 5GHz is positioned to handle channel bonding with the abundancy available of RF channels.

Keep in mind: 2.4GHz signals tend to penetrate objects better than 5GHz. Use your evaluation of the RF environment to determine which band is right for you. It is also possible to use both bands and separate RF traffic based on the application. For example, use 2.4GHz for your guest network and 5GHz for your corporate/internal network.

Are You Secure?

IBM has dubbed 2015 “the year of Healthcare security breach” with nearly 100 million healthcare records being compromised. Security is not just a medical concern but an industry wide concern, and the cost associated with a  security breach can exceed $13,500 per record.

Which Encryption Standards are You Using?

Many wireless networks do not leverage the latest encryption standards. For example, the Wi-Fi Alliance has recently announced the discontinuation of TKIP exclusively in wireless networks; however TKIP is still widely used in both personal and corporate networks. Use the Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) whenever possible.

Which Authentication Standards are You Using?

For home/personal networks, a pre-shared key (PSK) is adequate. However, to properly secure a corporate network the use of Extensible Authentication Protocols (EAP) is recommended. EAP types offer the ability to use username and passwords along with certificates to enhance the security of your network. If your network has the capabilities to use an EAP type, take advantage of it.

Speed vs. Reliability

There is a fine balance between speed and reliability in a wireless network. With speed comes network efficiency, with reliability comes reduced packet loss. The best way to visualize this is with a sliding scale. When you slide more to the speed side, you will lose reliability. When you slide to the reliability side, you will lose some speed. The balance between speed and reliability directly correlates to the data rates in which you are using for the wireless transmissions. Faster data rates generally reduce reliability of packet delivery but allow your network to process more packets. Slower data rates are generally reliable, but decrease network efficiency.

Determine what kind of data you are sending and determine whether speed or reliability is important.

Example: Are you a hospital delivering life critical information? You may need to optimize your network for reliability.
Example: Are you an office where large files are being transferred? You may need to optimize your network for speed.

Know What is on Your Network

The sheer number of wireless devices has increased significantly over the past few years. This trend towards wireless things is not expected to slow down, but rather increase through 2020. The Internet of Things (IoT) is a main contributor to wireless and can impact your wireless network. With the number of wirelessly enabled devices increasing, it is good to know what is on your network.

Count Your Wireless Devices

Well, you don’t necessarily need to walk around and physically count your devices. Many networks are managed by a wireless controller or interface. Evaluate the number of devices on your network by logging into your APs. The number of devices on your network directly correlates to your available bandwidth, noise, and other RF factors.

Understand What Your Wireless Devices are Doing

There are many forms of wireless data/traffic. Some devices send large amounts of data with streaming audio, while others send small amounts of data for sensor related information. Some devices require a constant flow of data, while other devices may not send data frequently. It’s good to know how your wireless devices are being used in your network. This can help when prioritizing traffic and determining network bandwidth.

Look to the Future and Plan Ahead

Wireless is an ever-evolving technology. New modulation types are being developed, security standards are being ratified, and the number of wirelessly enabled devices is on the rise. The best way to provide an optimized wireless experience is by planning ahead. Maintain current best practices with your wireless network, decommission old devices which are no longer relevant, and establish proper BYOD (“Bring Your Own Device”) policies. Look at the new wireless technologies and create a roll-out plan accordingly. Anticipate the impact of IoT and how it will affect your wireless network. Are you ready?

References:
IBM “year of healthcare security breach”:
http://public.dhe.ibm.com/common/ssi/ecm/se/en/sel03048usen/SEL03048USEN.PDF

WiFi Alliance TKIP notice:
https://www.wi-fi.org/download.php?file=/sites/default/files/private/Wi-Fi_Alliance_Technical_Note_TKIP_v1.0.pdf