The many flavors of WiFi

We live in an age of information technology where the annual revolutions are marked by product releases and where consumers and producers alike debate the merits of individual devices. No longer do we experience leaps and bounds along the rocky journey toward the maturity of smartphones, tablets, or homes filled with smart appliances — we have arrived.

One side effect of this new world, however, is the feeling of familiarity that comes with the availability of information technology devices as consumer commodities. When you can purchase a new phone, computer, or wireless router from convenience store down the block for a day’s wages, it’s tempting for many people to develop a feeling of control — a sense that they understand how these devices work, simply because they are so easily available. This is furthered by the ever-present focus on intuitive, accessible user experiences that enable even the most lowly novice to quickly access an ever-broadening range of actions and skills that used to seem mysterious or out of reach to many.

Over the past 10-15 years, I’ve worked in a variety of roles ranging from software engineering to network engineering and information security. I’ve seen technologies change, and I’ve been fortunate to develop considerable breadth and depth in my technical skill sets. In my role as a consultant, I commonly encounter the challenge of client education — I consider it equally, if not more important for me to foster and enhance the understanding of my clients of the technologies at hand, in addition to delivering top-notch solutions.

One challenge that faces my clients in the area of wireless networking is the clash between the ubiquitous availability of consumer-grade equipment and the complexity of (and need for) enterprise-grade solutions. For many, it can be difficult to understand why there is such a difference in price between the wireless routers they can get from their local electronics store and the high quality access points sold by vendors like Aerohive, Aruba, Cisco, Ruckus, and others.

When someone installs a single wireless router in their home, they often have a low threshold for success. Can the user connect their 2–3 devices to it, browse the Internet, and watch Netflix? Good — they’re golden.

However, there are a tremendous number of variables that go into wireless network design — including channel selection, power levels, environmental interference, building materials, furniture type, location of people, software applications in use, number of devices per person, position of antennas, location of access points, and more. Any variation in any of these variables (and others) can produce dramatically different experiences for individual users — even as narrowly as between users seated at the same table. Additionally, the stakes are higher — increased risk translates to potential financial and productivity losses, ultimately endangering a business. It is important that the network not only works at a basic level, but that the network scales to support current and future needs, and that care is taken to identify and proactively mitigate risks that would otherwise negatively impact the network and users’ experiences.

Ultimately, proper wireless network design is not simply a matter of throwing money at a problem. Vendors willing to hand out equipment in exchange for money are a dime a dozen. The trick is finding a vendor who can deliver the equipment you need along with the expertise to design and execute a solution that is specific to your exact context and requirements. Ultra high density wireless networks, like those at hackathons, are still extremely rare scenarios that few professionals have encountered, and even fewer have managed to pull off working solutions for — with still fewer who are capable of reliably producing solutions that can deliver top-quality user experiences time and time again.

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed connecting with the hackathon community over the past year, and I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to both advise organizers and deliver successful full-service solutions — including solutions for the Spring 2014 Bitcamp and PennApps Expo. In addition to connecting with the hackathon community on Facebook, I’m excited to use this channel to deliver more in-depth content about wireless and wired network design, equipment, and challenges. While this is primarily an intro for myself and my perspective, I look forward to more technical dives into network design and operations going forward.