Why You Should Upgrade Your Small Business WLAN

Five to 10 years ago, small businesses installed inexpensive wireless access points (WAPs) in conference rooms and executive offices. A wireless local area network (WLAN) was a small luxury for customer meetings and busy executives because, at the time, it only needed to support a handful of devices, and its reach was relatively small.

Now however, most employees have mobile devices — smartphones, tablets or laptops, work-issued and personally owned — that they would like to use at work. And don’t forget about the devices your visiting customers and business partners have. With this aggressive growth of mobile computing, offering wireless access in a conference room simply isn’t enough for most small businesses, as every employee wants — and every customer and business partner needs — to get online via a wireless network from anywhere in the office.

Yes, 802.11n is a Must

When your small business built its WLAN, it was probably for just a few locations within the office, and it was never designed with a larger footprint in mind. If you’re considering upgrading your WLAN, making it more efficient or maybe just getting started on a WLAN plan, here are small business wireless network tips to keep in mind.

Now fully matured and accepted as a wireless protocol, 802.11n is an absolute necessity for enterprise wireless networks. Not only does it have a better range, but it can overcome interference better than previous wireless protocols.

One advantage of 802.11n is that it offers multiple input/multiple output (MIMO) antennas. Using MIMO at both the transmitter and receiver level greatly improves communication performance. MIMO also offers the benefit of spatial multiplexing, a transmission technique that enables the network to transmit independent and separately encoded data signals from each of the multiple transmitter antennas. The result is that the space dimension is reused, or multiplexed, more than one time, which provides better reception than the older protocols.

Another benefit of 802.11n is higher throughput, and especially in the dual radio configuration that it supports. In dual-radio mode, 802.11n provides 300 MB/second throughput versus the 150 MB/second available in single-radio mode or even less in the older protocols. Some newer 802.11n access points on the market, with still more antennas, are able to deliver up to 600 MB/second. The higher throughput enables more data to pass through the wireless network, giving businesses faster networking speeds.

Another way to get the most out of 802.11n is to run it on a 5 GHz frequency. This is especially beneficial for small businesses that have space in a large building or that share office space with another company. Assuming the other companies have wireless networks as well, there is a chance each network might try to use the same channel, which causes interference.

The 5 G Hz frequency offers one key feature:  20 channels that do not overlap compared to the 2.4 GHz frequency, which offers just three channels that do not overlap. This greatly decreases the chances of interference. While the 5 GHz frequency is not standard yet, it is gaining popularity.

Manage Wireless Access Points

With your new hardware and top-of-the-line network protocol, you need to turn your attention to how you manage all of those WAPs — especially since you’re likely to be installing more of them. The two most popular management options include software management, which is installed on the server, or a WLAN controller, which installs directly to the wireless access point.

Both solutions let you configure the WAPs remotely, from a single location, taking care of nearly every aspect of management — managing the radio frequency, determining which channel is the best for the network and deciding how much power to broadcast from each WAP. It’s important to manage all of your WAPs holistically, to minimize interference within your WLAN and with neighboring WLANs.

A management solution provides that kind of seamless, network-wide management while reducing the time IT staff spends supervising the WLAN. Before you jump in, it is important to consider the pros and cons of each option:

  • Software management:  Good solution if you already have WAPs and only want to expand the network. It’s probably the best option if your WAPs are made by different manufacturers. It’s less expensive for companies, because you can install it directly to an existing server. The drawback is that it does not maintain a firewall between the traffic and the network, which provides less security control of the wireless network.
  • WLAN controller:  Good solution for a small business building its WLAN from the bottom up. You must use the same manufacturer for the controller and access points — which is easier if you are building a new network or completely replacing your old one. Security-wise, the controller acts as a firewall between the wireless network and the rest of your network, which is a significant plus. The only drawback is that you will need to buy additional hardware (the controller), possibly increasing costs.

Get WLAN Certified

Many small-business IT managers are generalists by nature, less familiar with the ins and outs of networking or WLAN, so consider getting certified. CompTIA offers general WLAN certification for IT managers, and if you are interested in implementing a particular vendor’s solution, you can get more specific certification directly from the vendor.

The days of a WLAN supporting a small area of the office or just a few devices are gone. With a few changes — upgrading your wireless protocol, opening up options for the frequency on which it runs or adding management tools — can do wonders to support the growing number of customers, partners and employees that expect wireless access as mobile computing continues to grow in the workplace.

Sven Rasmussen is a networking solution architect at CDW.

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