What to Consider Before an Infrastructure Upgrade
“Which vendor has the best technology for my WiFi infrastructure?” an IT manager asked. As a quick response to a loaded question I replied, “It depends.” Then I asked about the reason behind the question—a small price to pay compared with the cost of going down the wrong path. The response was proof that our clients know best and are the true subject-matter experts at what they really want.
This particular client was considering replacing his four-year-old WiFi Access Points (AP) with newer models certified to the latest 802.11ac standards. The objective was to reap the many benefits of the new standards—namely higher speeds and improved efficiency—for connecting WiFi end users.
Consider the bigger picture
Introducing new technology to the network has implications that should be carefully considered. In the case of this client, the AP replacement was just the tip of the iceberg:
Newer APs come packed with features and functionalities that require a learning curve for planning (site survey), deployment and proper support. Default settings may compromise network security.
New APs may not communicate properly with the rest of the WiFi infrastructure. Other WiFi architecture components such as the WiFi Controller and Policy Server (Gateway) may require upgrade considerations in order to integrate smoothly.
Efficient use of the wireless spectrum enables WiFi devices to pull higher download and upload rates, which translates to a need for gigabit uplinks across the local network (LAN) and at the main Internet connection points.
Improved hardware technology often requires increased power, so the existing PoE switches may need upgrading to the latest 802.3 standard, as well as an overhaul of the underlying cabling infrastructure connecting the APs to these switches.
And this is only a short list. Quantifying other risks will certainly extend it.
The budget dance
This handful of implications needing consideration when replacing APs illustrates the challenges behind any infrastructure upgrade. Though a simple software or image upgrade could close the functionality gap on the WiFi Controller, replacing 30 Gig-ports PoE switches across the enterprise would require intense budget conversations with the CFO. This fundamental principle applies to most system upgrades. Improvements in one area of the infrastructure could lead to unintended consequences in other areas. The fact remains that even the best-designed networks need a makeover at some point in time because of the changing nature of technology. That’s when IT managers have to weigh the need for specific upgrades against budgetary constraints. A complete enterprise network overhaul funded in a single budget round is rare. The problem can even be exacerbated by fluctuating budgets in the midst of a multi-year systems upgrade.
You don’t have to go it alone
In this WiFi scenario, one viable approach could be to subscribe to a Managed Service that allows for technology refresh at predefined intervals in time—typically over a three- to five-year cycle. For minimal or no extra charge, a Managed Services Provider (MSP) would assess, redesign, upgrade and fine-tune the service to meet the latest standards that apply to the client’s changing needs.
For education clients, for instance, changing student demographics tend to drive the need for periodic upgrades to keep up with increasing bandwidth consumption trends. Such metrics by network zone should be available in the web portal of a standard Managed Service offering to help justify why and where an upgrade is needed, as well as historical metrics confirming success of the upgrade. (Here are five questions to ask before picking a Managed Services Provider.)
Justification for an upgrade should therefore always start with why—and the reasons should be documented using data that clearly depicts the current state of the network or systems. Complete or progressive rollouts should provide ongoing insight on how a given change is yielding positive and progressive results on parts of the network to support the return on investment. Failing to set a performance target from the get-go could ultimately leave room for substandard results and inconsistent upgrade plans. And when the going gets tough, stakeholders will start to demand answers.
Ultimately, an IT strategy should account for the realities of inevitable network upgrades and the need to hedge risk—because technology is ever changing, and that means increasingly shorter lifecycles. According to IDC, IoT devices will double by 2018.* With the majority of devices relying on wireless technology, better-performing WiFi is here to stay. And whether you choose to go it alone or enlist the help of an MSP, keep a broader perspective on implications on the rest of your network.
* Gens, Frank. “IDC FutureScape: Worldwide IT Industry 2016 Predictions — Leading Digital Transformation to Scale.” November 2015.