A Response to Keith Parsons Regarding WiFi Bake-offs

Keith Parsons responded to my article about my concerns with WiFi Bake-off process. I thought I'd take a moment to respond to some of his points. My original question is listed, his response in block quotes, and my response follows.

  1. How long does it take to add an SSID for the CEO at the last minute?

ALL Enterprise AP Vendors solutions can do this easily – but some require the admin doing the work actually learn and understand the solution. Many SoHo AP vendors make this quite easy – true. But the simpler the interface usually means there are techniques and features that might be missing.

Why should we have to learn the interface ahead of time? Shouldn't it be intuitive enough that someone could figure it out without ever seeing the interface?

  1. How easy is it to build a secured guest network? Is it automatically configured or does require a lot of boxes to check?

Like question #1 – all vendors should be able to do this quickly by copying a pre-loaded template. Again, all admins should receive training on the product of choice so they feel as comfortable as possible with their solution of choice.

Why should they need training? Shouldn't it be the job of the UX and UI folks to make it so intuitive that the product just flows?

  1. 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?

What you are really saying is to pre-test the Tech Support of whatever WLAN Vendor you choose. Some are using ‘Chat’ functions instead of email. Phone calls in your same time zone isn’t as important as being able to easily understand the speech and language of the tech on the other end of the line. Especially check the Support Portal’s Knowledge Base – sometimes the quickest way to get the answers you are looking for.

I want to know what's my resolution path when something doesn't work right. I'll be honest, online chat is not something I am okay with for infrastructure issues. If my WiFi isn't working right, then my network isn't working right. I need to be able to call someone and have them help me.

  1. 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.

This one is just plain silly! If you need quick replacement, it is far more efficient to order 5% or 10% ‘extra’ Access Points to have on hand, then work within the 2-4 day return process most vendors have for warranty replacement. It is a VERY EXPENSIVE option to have spares on call within driving distance. Simpler to just do this yourself. Not to mention, your design plan for your Wireless LAN needs to have both Primary Coverage and Secondary Coverage (some incorrectly refer to this as Overlap).

So I should buy more APs than I need because something might break? No, I shouldn't have to keep APs on the shelf for backup (and also eat up warranty time). If I have an AP die, one of two things should happen.

  1. Vendor overnights me one.
  2. I drive to my local VAR and swap them.

Why shouldn't this be the process? Doesn't this make the most sense for the customer? If my firewall dies, my warranty has one delivered within 24 hours. Why should a WiFi vendor get to use UPS ground when an AP dies under warranty?

We run our school based on one question:

What's best for our students?

Why shouldn't a WiFi vendor operate with a similar mantra?

What's best for the customer?

We often get stuck in doing what's easiest for us (the employees).

It seems like asking the customers to keep spare APs on the shelf or waiting 3-4 days for replacement is doing what's easiest for the company.

  1. 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?

Another great question. You will want to ‘test’ new firmware in a walled garden area, at least enough to feel comfortable with it before rolling it out to the entire live network. Receiving the latest copy of Firmware should be as simple as going to the Vendor’s Support web site and downloading it. My first reaction is to wait a bit for all newly-released firmware upgrades to let other be the ‘guinea pigs’ and work out the new bugs on their networks before testing it on yours.

I'll answer 6 and 7 as one response.

  1. 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?

ALL WLAN Vendors expect their customers to beta test their code. They won’t tell you this directly, but there is no way their QA department can test all scenarios – especially something unique about your network. This can be mitigated by waiting a bit for the newly released code to ‘settle down’.

As the customer, I am paying for solutions. I am not paying to tinker. Your QA process should be thorough enough that you should recommend everyone upgrade immediately.

I know what a lot of folks are probably thinking.

That isn't how corporate IT works.

It's how it should work. If I sign up for a beta testing program, then I should expect bugs. If I don't run beta code, then I should expect fewer bugs than before. Go and ask this to just about any end user IT professional. They expect the vendor to find the bugs. If an end user finds a bug, it's a failure on the QA process. Will there be bugs? Absolutely, but saying customers are beta testers would be news to most of them.

  1. 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?

I’ve seen this be as quick as a under a minute… do you really care about this time? How often are you out changing your Access Points anyway? This is part of an initial rollout. So work on a deployment plan to pre-stage your gear and make this process as smooth as you can. I’ve seen an entire 50-AP high school go from everything in boxes to full working Wi-Fi in a few mere hours.

This is about the details. Bad experiences here can lead to bad experiences elsewhere.

  1. How complex is the product? Do you need to be a CWNE to figure out a basic deployment?

Complexity is a by product of an enhanced feature set. If you only need SoHo capabilities, you’ll have very simple interfaces. As WLAN requirements get more complex, vendors leave the simple single-page configuration, and must move to an ‘object-oriented’ language for object reuse between SSIDs, Radios, AP groups, etc. Don’t be afraid of complexity because you haven’t had adequate training on the user interface.

I’d like to see more deployments have a CWNE review them – it would sure make for more Wireless LANs that just work. Wireless Designs need to have more design than a mere AP-on-a-stick coverage model.

I've seen WiFi interfaces be complex because of lack of UI/UX considerations. It's easy to have complicated technology and have a complicated interface, but it's really hard to have a complicated technogy and simple interface.

It takes more work.

“That’s been one of my mantras — focus and simplicity. Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.”

-- Steve Jobs, 1998