Ian doing a Site Survey

“We want wi-fi. Now what?”

I’ve been spending the past week at the annual Wireless LAN Professionals Conference in Phoenix. This is one of my favorite conferences along with the Church IT Network conference, because I get to spend a couple of days geeking out hard with a whole bunch of REALLY smart people. The amount of information I’ve stuffed into my brain since last Friday is a little bit, well, mind-blowing…

I spent the first 3 days getting my Ekahau Certified Survey Engineer credential. For those who are not familiar with the Wi-Fi side of my consulting practice, Ekahau Site Survey is a fantastic tool for developing predictive RF designs for wireless networks, allowing me to optimize the design before I ever pull any new cable or hang access points. One of the key points that’s been touched on frequently throughout the training and the conference is what was termed by one attendee as the “Sacred Ritual of the Gathering of Requirements”. It sounds silly, but this one step is probably the single most important part of the entire process of designing a wireless network.

In the church world (and in the business world), your mission statement is what informs everything you do. Every dollar you spend, every person you hire, every program you offer, should in some way support that mission focus in a clearly defined and measurable manner. A former boss (and current client) defines his IT department’s mission like this: “Our users’ mission is our mission.” This clearly laid out that in IT, we existed to help everyone else accomplish their mission, which in turn accomplished the organization’s mission.

I’ve had more than a few clients say initially that their requirement is “we want wi-fi”. My job as a consultant and an engineer is to flesh out just what exactly “wi-fi” means in your particular context, so that I can deliver a design and a network that will make you happy to write the check at the end of the process. I can’t expect a client to know what they want in terms of specific engineering elements relating to the design. If they did, I’m already redundant.

Whiteboard

Photo: Mitch Dickey/@Badger_Fi

During the conference someone put up a whiteboard, with the following question:

“What are the top key questions to ask a client in order to develop a WLAN design or remediation?”

The board quickly filled up, and I’ll touch on a few really important ones here:

“What do you expect wi-fi to do for you? What problem does it solve?”

It was also stated as:

“What is your desired outcome? How does it support your business?”

This is one of the fundamental questions. It goes back to your mission statement. Another way of putting it is “How do you hope to use the wi-fi to support you mission?” What you hope to do with wi-fi will drive every single other design decision. The immediate follow-up question should be a series of “why?” questions to get to the root cause of why these outcomes are important to the business goals. You can learn an awful lot by asking “why?” over and over like a 4-year-old child trying to understand the world. This is critical for managing expectations and delivering what the client is paying you a large sum of money to do.

“What is your most critical device/application?”

“What is your least capable and most important device?”

“What other types of devices require wi-fi?”

“What type of devices do your guests typically have?”

It’s nice to have shiny new devices with the latest and greatest technology, but if the wi-fi has to work for everyone, your design has to assume the least capable device that’s important, and design for that. If you use a bunch of “vintage” Samsung Galaxy phones for barcode scanning or checking in children, then we need to make sure that the coverage will be adequate everywhere you need to use them, and that you select the proper spectrum to support those devices. For the guest network, having at least a rough idea of what mix of iOS and Android devices the guests bring into the facility can inform several design choices.

“What regulatory/policy constraints are there on the network?”

This is hugely important. Another mantra I’ve heard repeated often is, “‘Because you can’ is NOT a strategy!” If your network has specific privacy requirements such as PCI-DSS, HIPAA, any number of industry-specific policies, or even just organizational practices about guest hospitality, network access, etc., these also need to factor into the design and planning process.

I have one client whose organization is a church that is focused on a 5-star guest experience. What this translated to in terms of Wi-Fi is that they did not want to name the SSIDs with the standard “Guest” and “Staff” monikers that are common. The reasoning for this was that merely naming the private LAN SSID “Staff” would create in a guest’s mind that there are two classes of people, one of which may getĀ better network performance because you’re one of the elect. It’s also a challenge when you have a lot of volunteers who perform staff-like functions and who need access to the LAN. Ultimately, we simply called this network “LAN”. Meaningful to the IT staff, and once the staff is connected to it, they no longer think about it. Something as simple as the SSID list presented by a wifi beacon is an important consideration in the overall guest experience.

“What is your budget?”

This one is so obvious it’s often overlooked. As engineers, we like to put shiny stuff into our designs. The reality is, most customers don’t have a bottomless pit of money, especially when they’re non-profits relying on donated funds. While I’d love to design a big fancy Ruckus or Aruba system everywhere I go, the reality is that it’s probably overkill for a lot of places, when a Ubiquiti or EnGenius system will meet all the requirements.

“What are the installation constraints?”

“Which of those constraints are negotiable? Which aren’t?”

Another obvious one that is overlooked. You need to know when the installation can happen (or can’t happen), or if there are rooms that are off-limits, potential mounting locations that are inaccessible. Areas that can’t support a lift, or areas that you simply can’t get cable to without major work. Aesthetics can be a significant factor for both AP selection and placement, wiring, and even configuration (such as turning off the LEDs). While one particular AP may be technically suited to a particular location, how it looks in the room may dictate the choice of something else.

“What is your relationship with your landlord/neighbors/facility manager like?”

I kid you not, this is a bigger factor than you might think. In an office building, being a good wifi neighbor is an important consideration. If the landlord is very picky about where and how communications infrastructure is installed outside the leased space (such as fiber runs through hallways, roof access, antennas outside the building, extra lease charges for technology access), you may encounter some challenges. If your facility manager is particular about damage, you need to factor that into the process as well. This likely also will come into play when you’re doing your site surveys and need access to some parts of the building.

There are a whole host of followup questions beyond these that focus on the more technical aspects of the requirements gathering, and your client may or may not have an answer:

“How many people does this need to support at one time?”

“Where are all these people located?”

“When are they in the building?”

“Where do you need coverage?”

“Where do you NOT need coverage?”

“What is your tolerance level for outages/downtime?”

… and many more that you will develop during this sacred requirements gathering ritual. Many of the technical aspects of the environment (existing RF, channel usage, airtime usage, interference source, etc) don’t need to be asked of the client, as you will find them during your initial site survey.

If you’re a wifi engineer, having these questions in your mind will help you develop a better design. If you’re the client, having answers to these questions available will help you get a better design.

What questions are important to your network? Sound off below!