Make Your Network Ready for the WiFi Revolution

Posted 2012-08-21

By Shahid Ahmed

Creating a WiFi network in the workplace used to be a matter of making sure a few hotspots were available so employees could connect to the network from their laptops. Today, WiFi is far more critically important to enterprises across every industry.

Drivers include the increasing number of consumer WiFi devices being used in organizations, a growing number of new mobile applications, and the need to connect workers across offices, factories, shop floors and more. As a consequence, CIOs are challenged to create a truly enterprise-strength WiFi network—one that’s robust, scalable and secure.

Statistics and trends point to the growing importance of WiFi. In the United States, for example, WiFi connections account for more than 37 percent of digital traffic over mobile phones. And about 90 percent of Internet access from tablet computers is done via WiFi, not through a 3G or 4G network.

One key trend driving these changing usage patterns is the increased use of WiFi devices in the workplace. People now expect their personal mobile devices to be incorporated into the way they work, and they also count on readily available bandwidth for sending and receiving large data files. Increasing numbers of enterprise applications are also being delivered via WiFi.

In addition, WiFi solutions are becoming more prevalent beyond the office environment—in places such as industrial plants and mines. For example, Marathon Petroleum, working with Accenture, has implemented a solution that integrates WiFi, location-based technologies and small gas detectors worn on a jacket or shirt lapel to remotely monitor incidents involving their employees at a facility covering about 1,000 acres.

Fixed WiFi access points provide integrated wireless coverage for refinery units, and mobile WiFi access points installed in trucks provide flexible coverage for workers moving around larger areas. The mobile units are connected to Marathon’s central communications room by cellular networks. The WiFi solution gives workers a greater sense of confidence that their safety is being monitored and that rapid intervention can take place in the event of an emergency.

Strengthening Your WiFi Network

CIOs need to be proactive in deploying WiFi capabilities that help ensure that their people and businesses can effectively operate in an environment where continuous connectivity is essential and presumed. The following are important components of a technology strategy that can create and continuously optimize an enterprise-strength WiFi network.

1. Create a robust and scalable architecture.

With WiFi such an integral part of an organization’s overall IT infrastructure, it needs to be architected properly so that it can meet the demands of users, business units and locations. With so many devices coming into the workplace, the WiFi architecture must be able to scale quickly.

One common option is to use an architecture design with centralized control to manage the entire infrastructure. Centralized administration enables more effective management, minimizing the need for field services. An end-to-end architecture includes the following:

  • Intelligent access points—both indoor and outdoor—which enable important network functions such as interference mitigation, resource management and band selection.
  • A services component for critical network management, subscriber management and policy control. This delivers important scalability to the architecture, as it provides the flexibility to deploy, operate and manage networks with multiple access points.
  • A mobile packet core, which offers standards-based functionality for common subscriber management, policy and authentication, delivering transparent service integration to WiFi users.

2. Plan and manage from the start with a flexible technology road map.

With WiFi, as with all mobile technologies, the environment of devices, networks, vendors and standards is changing at breakneck speed. That means the WiFi capability should be designed from the start to accommodate change and enable ready migration.

Other changes are in store as new standards attempt to deal with congestion—and as technology innovations proliferate. So it’s important that CIOs plan for those changes and prepare for the probability of migrating from one type of service to another.

3. Protect the business through more comprehensive security capabilities.

The bring-your-own-device (BYOD) trend, whereby network access to personal devices is granted in an enterprise, comes with a host of implications for network control and security. Organizations need to know who is on the network and why, enforce access policies, and then maintain compliance and audit requirements.

As tablets and smartphones proliferate in enterprises, applications downloaded by employees (often running in the background) can access the data on the phone and report back to IT.

Solutions are already in place—or are being devised—to cope with security risks. More- effective security capabilities, integrated with the WiFi network, provide automated identification, onboarding and policy enforcement with provisioning to personal devices, while enabling device-level security. With apps that run on employee devices, security personnel can provide centralized control over how a device can be used, what services or applications can be run, and what resources can be accessed by that device and user.

4. Work closely with telecommunications service providers.

Enterprise CIOs should work closely with carriers to tightly integrate WiFi capabilities, because users increasingly expect seamless transition of service from cellular to WiFi. Of course, such cooperation with providers happens naturally with enterprises that are in the business of selling WiFi access to customers (those who, for example, run stadiums or convention centers). However, CIOs in just about any business should bear in mind the importance of WiFi offloading to major mobile carriers.

5. Consider alternate sourcing to manage complexity.

As WiFi solutions grow in terms of both importance and complexity, many CIOs are considering working with an external provider to help manage the technological and organizational changes required. WiFi managed services options are likely to become more appealing to enterprises to achieve flexible and iterative enterprise application development. A managed service also ensures that enterprises will have ongoing access to the latest skills and technologies needed to run and maintain the WiFi environment.

As WiFi moves from the office to factory floors, hospitals, stadiums and coal mines, so does the need for designing the network differently. New tools and skills are needed to manage and run these complex and ever-changing wireless networks.

WiFi enablement has now become so critical to business operations—and to enabling better collaboration and mobile working—that it is fast becoming an integral part of any CIO’s agenda.

Shahid Ahmed is a senior executive with Accenture and is the Americas practice lead for the Accenture and Cisco Business Group.