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What is the meaning of Enterprise class Wi-Fi?

Posted by Patrick Groot Nuelend

May 6, 2015 at 6:12 AM


With the ever growing adoption of mobility (i.e. smartphones, tablets etc.) and the desire for people to be connected to the internet regardless of their location (at home, at school or work etc.) Wi-Fi has quickly become the favorite type of network connection. Although wireless wide area networks such as 3G or 4G are now available in most urban areas, Wi-Fi is still preferred in most cases due to wide support of all sort of devices and the fact that you can get free connection now in most public places, including bars/restaurants, airports, hotels, city centers, stadium etc. More importantly, most people now enjoy Wi-Fi at home and expect the same experience when they travel, leisure, work etc. It's fair to say that Wi-Fi has grown from being a niche technology used by companies in warehouses and other business environments to a commodity technology (available to almost everyone).

So if Wi-Fi has now become commodity, does this mean that the same Wi-Fi technology that we use at home can be used in business environments as well? Not exactly. Even though we have standards for Wi-Fi products, which guarantee that an Access Point from vendor X works with a tablet from vendor Y, there are some important differences between products that are designed for personal use (or SOHO, Small Office / Home Office) and Enterprise Class solutions. While most people can imagine that a Wi-Fi network in a large hospital, university or retailer with hundreds of stores will have other requirements than the Wi-Fi you have at home, the differences may be less obvious for a Small or Medium Business (SMB). Especially when looking at the price of your little home router or AP, it may look attractive to buy the same products for your business. After all, it works at home, so why wouldn't it work at the office. Good question. Well, the answer is that at work (regardless the size of your business) you probably need an Enterprise Class solution. “So then tell me what 'Enterprise Class' means”, I hear you think. Basically it means that the solution is 'fit' for use in a professional business environment which then means it has specific features and options which supports your business better than a home or SOHO product. Let's take a look at some of these specific features and options.

- Support for mobility:

In many business environments, Wi-Fi users are often not tied to a desk and roam between different parts of the building as they are working and communicating. If we take an average coverage size of a Wi-Fi AP of approx. 2000 sq meters (of course it depends on multiple factors but let’s take an average), multiple APs are needed to coverage a larger building, multiple floors, outdoor areas etc. As users roam from AP to another and their connection is being handed over, the communication should not drop or experience delays, as this will result in a drop in their applications. Even with WPA2 Enterprise security (user is authenticated) this handover should be seamless. Especially with real time applications, such as VoIP or video, support for mobility and fast roaming is very important.

- Security:

Everybody now understands that Wi-Fi networks should be well secured in order not to risk having information stolen that is transmitted through the air, or getting uninvited guests on your network. Most APs (even SOHO product) now support different encryption options and maybe offer user authentication too. Is this enough? It is probably for your home installation, but in a business environment again, you probably have some additional concerns. First of all, as you may use a mixture of different client devices, it’s important to be able to support different security options simultaneously. For example you may want to use WPA2 encryption on handheld terminals but demand some form of authentication on laptops (as they access more sensitive data). Secondly, just securing your data and devices may not be enough. Having some form of Intrusion Detection provides you with information when someone actually tries to access your network unauthorized or compromise your data so measures can be taken.

- Guest Access:

Even though the primary reason for deploying a Wi-Fi network in your business may be to provide access for your own employees, it may be a good idea to share a piece of the wireless bandwidth with your visitors and guests. Again, here it's important to guarantee the security, after all you want to know who's entering your site (both physically as through the network) and separate guest traffic from business traffic. Providing a Captive Portal, where users can register themselves or logon through their social media account helps to reduce the support burden that is typically involved with a guest network (e.g. with generating and providing vouchers, managing temporary user accounts etc). Separating your guest traffic from corporate traffic can be achieved by assigning separate vlans.

- Configuration and Management:

Setting up your corporate Wi-Fi network should be as easy and straightforward as setting up your home router. Especially as it's quite likely that you may need more than one AP to cover your whole building or even outdoor area as we discussed earlier, you don't want to touch each and every AP. What’s more, manually configuring multiple APs is error prone and can result in unwanted experiences. Therefore most Enterprise WLAN solutions on the market offer a controller (or manager, switch etc) which is the central point to configure and manage your network. By using a controller you only have to configure one device all the access points will get the configuration from the controller. (Well, with many vendor solutions, the AP still needs some initial configuration before it can be fully managed by the controller but let’s save that topic for another time). A disadvantage of having a controller added to your Wi-Fi setup is the extra cost it adds on top. A more cost effective solution is to have the controller function offered by the AP itself. This eliminates the cost of having an extra box in your network but provides the same advantage of central management.

These are just a few examples of things that are typically offered only by Enterprise Class Wi-Fi products. Now you probably think "well, that’s fine, but this comes with complexity as well as a high price tag”. Yes and no. So typically Enterprise Class products are quite a bit more expensive than SOHO products as well as a lot more complex to setup and manage (it may even require extensive product training) . Zebra technologies recognize that many SMB customers are looking for an Enterprise Class Wi-Fi solution without the costs and complexity that typically comes with it. WiNG Express is a new solution targeted specifically at SMB customers and offers the same Enterprise class quality technology as our fortune 500 customers are using 24x7. Up to 25 APs you don't need a controller, as one of the APs can operate as a controller at the same time. For larger networks, a WING Express manager can simply be added for centralized management of multiple sites or installations up to 1,024 APs. So now you can enjoy "Enterprise Class" Wi-Fi with all the features and options discussed above (and more), but without the cost and complexity.

Topics: Wireless LAN, WLAN