For WLAN Customers, It’s About Size and Circumstance

By Lee Badman, Blog Contributor
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Not all customer sites are created equal, nor are all wireless networks. The trick is understanding what works in different situations. The size of the environment certainly helps shape overall strategy and design, and a distributed environment with hundreds of sites is not the same paradigm as a single site with an equal number of APs. Specific, nuanced business needs also influence what features each of us need and can afford, but these critical differentiators are often lost in general discussion.

Not all customers can make use of the latest Feature of the Month from their wireless vendor, and not everything that customers have on their wish lists are worth the wireless vendors' time to develop. At the same time, both sides of the discussion have to understand why the other may not be able to flex while also looking for opportunities where they can. Better SEs and account managers can smell these gaps, and really understanding their customers helps when it comes to questions like "How do I do ___ when your usual recommended offering doesn't work for us?"

One example of where scale impacts WLAN design is with 802.11ac, and where APs need two cables runs and a port channel configured on their connected switch. If I have a small environment (or a number of small environments), this may not raise eyebrows. A few more cables and a handful of switch commands are easy to dismiss as part of the cost of doing business to get to 11ac. But in big single environments where APs are counted in the thousands, it's not so simple. Thousands of new cable runs aren't cheap, and may equal a stand-alone project to get installed. It gets worse if pathway changes are involved, if asbestos abatement comes into play, or if you're dealing with the challenges of working in historical buildings. In this example, thousands of new port-channels become that many potential points of failure that can be difficult to troubleshoot when something goes wrong.

Then there's the matter of differing functional use-cases. To make the point, consider that the use of social media credentials is becoming more popular for guest access. The appeal is obvious in that users are accustomed to logging on with these user IDs and passwords, and new accounts don't have to be created. On the back side, the  WLAN can be leveraged to target advertising and gather data based on the use of social media logins used on the guest network. This fairly new option in guest access is often touted as the end-all by WLAN vendors despite their being a number of customer types (hospitals and higher ed among them) where privacy concerns make social media use for guest access a non-starter.

Finally, there are slick tools like location analytics-- and the licensing costs that come with them. In retail settings, these analytics can lead to better sales through better engagement with the customer, and so licensing premiums and costs of good indoor mapping are justified. But if I want to leverage that same analytical power more altruistically and simply provide accurate mapping of app-based handicap routes through a facility, I'm probably not going to catch a break on pricing for the same feature set.

None of this is an implication of the WLAN industry being somehow deficient, or of customers wanting too much. The point here is that as Wi-Fi continues to pervade as a connect-everywhere option (and expectation), the WLAN industry will continue to parade out new and impressive options, that not all of us will be able to use because of our own circumstance. In a perfect world, our SE's would help get the occasional message of "that's great, but what about…" to the WLAN product developers who would hopefully have an open mind. As customers we can work on developing the ability to figure out how to adapt some of the coolness that we may not always be able to flat-out embrace, or at least cultivate better relationships with our vendors to make clear why we may not be able to love the latest feature sets in a world where one size does not fit all.

How about you- do you TELL your customers what they need, because it happens to be the latest feature from your employer? If you're a customer, do you slam the door on new features because they don't fit how you operate today? How do you, regardless of your role, communicate/learn about/try/dismiss new offerings or ways of doing wireless?