Let's Talk About the WiFi Bake-off

Picking a vendor for your WiFi deployment can be daunting. It's a large purchase and choosing the wrong one can have negative repercussions for years to come. It's a relatively new market and there are a quite a few vendors to pick from. Common ones are Aerohive, Airtight, Aruba, Cisco, HP, Meraki, and Ruckus. Each one claims to be the best (as you'd expect). How does an IT department decide which is the best for their deployment?

One of the trends I've been noticing among schools is that they are holding "bake-offs" in order to pick their new WiFi vendor. I am concerned that the majority of these tests revolve around speed. Speed is important, but it's just part of the solution. The speed only test also ignores real world situations.

  1. What clients are also on the AP?
  2. What are the clients doing?
  3. What resources are being requested?
  4. Is it a local resource or external?
  5. Is the RF environment under control outside of WiFi?
  6. Are there other network factors to consider?

Even if you were looking at the above information, it's still not a valid test to determine which vendor is the right one for you. I want to give you some new testing guidelines for picking your next vendor.

  1. How long does it take to add an SSID for the CEO at the last minute?
  2. Double the bid size and explain you are adding on to the building. How does your vendor handle this? Does it require additional management equipment or can it scale up easily?
  3. How easy is it to build a secured guest network? Is it automatically configured or does require a lot of boxes to check?
  4. Build scenarios that require troubleshooting and get feedback on what are the steps that Technical Support is going to walk you through. Do you call someone local? If not, is someone available in your time zone?
  5. If an AP dies, how many hours will it be before you get a replacement? Can you drive somewhere locally to pick one up? With WiFi becoming first layer access, it's no longer possible to wait 3-4 days for a replacement to arrive.
  6. How often does new firmware get released? Is it an "all or none" upgrade process or can you test sections of your building at a time?
  7. How involved is the testing of new code? Does the company expect you to find bugs in the firmware or do they have a strict QA process?
  8. How many minutes does it take to get an AP out of the box and serving clients? Can it be automated past plugging up to power/data?
  9. How often are application control signatures updated? Is it true layer 7 control or just URL filtering?
  10. Is the management interface compatible with an iPhone or is it riddled with Flash and other legacy plugins?
  11. Is the band steering bi-directional or is it just about pushing clients to 5 ghz?
  12. Is it an actual WIPS policy or is it reporting a false positive from an AP across the street? Can you test it?
  13. What's the process of integrating with {insert anything you want}? Ask them to show you how it works within the management system. What are the troubleshooting steps if it doesn't work?
  14. What is the local VAR like? Do they have trained SEs on that product or are they just basically a funnel to the vendor's Technical Support? Who do you call for more complex integrations?
  15. How complex is the product? Do you need to be a CWNE to figure out a basic deployment?

Find a vendor that works for YOUR deployment before talking price. I'd also determine the critical features and functionality for your organization. Vendors have tons of features, but only a few are likely to be really critical for you. Identify the capabilities that will really enable your WiFi to do what you need it to do and focus on that.

I've often said that WiFi is about the details. It's better to learn about each vendor's details before you deploy their products. Ask these questions to be answered and demonstrated and you'll have a better idea of what you can expect once it's deployed. The most expensive WiFi network is the one that doesn't work!

Update: Andrew von Nagy has a nice follow up to this piece.