Review Your Wireless LAN Know-How
Looking to add wireless LAN technology and services to your company's portfolio? Here are some of the basics you should know.
Wireless LAN (WLAN) technology is deceptively simple. Seemingly, all you need are a couple of access points (APs) to blanket your desired area with radio waves and some wireless NICs (network interface cards) to grab those RF (radio frequency) signals, and you're in business - right? Theoretically, yes, those are the primary components of a WLAN and how it works. However, having a WLAN installed and a WLAN that works are two different matters.
"VARs need to look at WLAN technology as a solution sale," says Alex Thurber, director of wireless and security strategy, worldwide channels for Cisco Systems (San Jose, CA). "They can earn solid margins by packaging software, unique hardware [i.e. retail scanners], and WLAN network infrastructure products into vertical-specific solutions."
All Access Points Aren't The Same
Probably one of the biggest hurdles VARs and integrators have when selling WLANs is the misconception that every AP is created equal. "High-end [price above $600] WLAN products offer VARs better margins than low-end [price under $300] products," states Anthony Bartolo, director of product marketing for WLAN solutions at networking vendor Nortel Networks (Brampton, Ontario). "The high-end products target the enterprise and public WLAN market segments, whereas the low-end APs are more for residential use."
VARs tend to sell enterprise APs, which are more costly than their SOHO (small office, home office) counterparts but have more advanced features like increased security and more powerful/versatile antennas. In fact, the latter can prove to be an important component of a WLAN's success - and a differentiating factor between your solution and a SOHO WLAN.
Most enterprise APs come with interchangeable antennas, which enable a more customized approach to signal transmission. Omnidirectional antennas create a doughnut-shaped coverage area and offer up to 6 db (decibels) of gain or signal power. With omnidirectional antennas you can create overlapping coverage cells. In contrast, directional antennas (e.g. yagi antennas) send and receive radio signals in a narrow beam. Directional antennas offer 12+ db gain and are designed for long, narrow areas or point-to-point links between buildings. Often, VARs can show a customer immediate cost savings by determining that fewer APs are needed for a project by using directional antennas.
Beyond features like antenna type, your customers may also be confused about the differences between a WLAN router and a basic AP. What's confusing is that a WLAN router includes an 802.11 AP. However, it does much more than a standard AP. Most notably, a WLAN router allows clients to access a number of different Ethernet networks as compared to the single network access of an AP. For example, if a university used WLAN routers, its students could wirelessly connect to both the Internet and the school's network via a single wireless connection.
Network performance (i.e. throughput) is also improved with WLAN routers since these devices only send data packets to specific IP (Internet Protocol) addresses. Regular APs send all data packets regardless of the IP address.
Why Customers Need Your WLAN Skills
Proving the need for enterprise APs, antennas, or WLAN routers is difficult in these days of slim IT spending. Indeed, the best type of customer is the one that tried to install a WLAN and consequently experienced problems with coverage, security, or both. Those customers will understand the value of your services and products. For the others, you should explain some of the common problems they may encounter. For instance, "dead spots" in a WLAN may be the result of interference from devices like microwaves and wireless phones operating in the 2.4 GHz band. Other signal strength problems could be derived from bad IP settings or multipath problems where NICs are receiving multiple signals instead of one strong one. According to Brent Nixon, wireless product line manager at 3Com Corp. (Marlborough, MA), some of the most common mistakes when deploying WLANs include choosing the wrong caliber of equipment for the installation and overloading the network with too many wireless devices. Of course, to evaluate such problems, you'll need to perform a site survey.
Show The Value Of A Site Survey
A WLAN site survey will determine the optimal number and locations of access points to ensure maximum coverage and a minimum data rate. Nixon says many VARs underutilize the installation support services (e.g. site survey) offered by distributors and vendors. "Without a correct site survey, you could end up with a substandard WLAN network, even though the products used were top of the line," he says. "For example, a common mistake is deploying access points too close together, thus running on overlapping channels."
Bartolo echoes Nixon's sentiment about the importance of site surveys. "VARs need to design a wireless architecture that best fits the customer's security and bandwidth needs," he says. "When the right architecture and equipment are chosen, the deployment should also be the result of a thoughtful RF site survey that maximizes signal quality and minimizes the customer's cost."
When convincing a customer about the need for a site survey, you should explain how the WLAN's signal could be restricted by everything from people to filing cabinets. Once you determine the locations for the APs, you can download free site survey software from your choice of WLAN vendor. With the software loaded on a laptop or PDA (personal digital assistant), you are ready to roam around the customer's facility, testing each AP's data rate, signal strength, and signal quality.
After you explain these basics of a site survey, it is likely your clients won't think WLANs are so simple. Instead, they'll realize they need your help.