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Wireless LAN Deployment Steps

As part of planning a wireless LAN deployment, you need to define the tasks necessary for completing the project. This involves realizing applicable steps, such as requirements analysis, design, and installation, which are common to any system solution. To minimize deployment risks and ensure a successful project, be sure to address the following steps as they relate to wireless LANs:

  • Requirements. Before getting too far with the project, understand as much as possible about requirements, such as needs of users and applications, interfaces with existing systems, facility composition, and so on. This provides the basis for making decisions when designing the solution. If you don't do a good job of defining the requirements, then the solution may not meet the needs of users.

    For smaller networks, the requirements gathering process could be as simple as spending a couple days thinking about requirements and preparing a two to three page document that defines them. Larger systems, however, will likely need for a more involved process because of a broader base of users and systems. If requirements are not well understood, then consider using prototyping and construct a solution based on known requirements. The testing of a small prototype with a limited number of users will often lead to better understood requirements. We also have details on defining requirements.

  • Design. The design produces a definition of how the wireless LAN will satisfy requirements. This includes technical elements such as developing the system architecture, identifying standards (e.g., 802.11b or 802.11a), selecting an access point vendor, specifying antennas types, identifying MAC Layer settings, and so on. The end result of the design will be a bill of materials and diagrams that indicate the interconnection of related software and hardware components. Of course this leads to the cost of the system, something important to know before moving on.

    Be sure to perform an RF site survey to determine the optimum location and number of access points. Also investigate the presence of RF interference and recommend appropriate countermeasures to maximum the performance of the network. In larger more complex networks, consider the use of a simulation (e.g., OPNET), which leads to making better decisions on access point settings based on various user activity and network configurations.

  • Feasibility. Once the requirements and design are known, it may be worthwhile (and required by some companies) to perform a feasibility analysis before spending the money to purchase components and install the system. The idea is to identify benefits and determine whether the costs of the system will result in a positive return on investment. For some applications, such as inventory management and price marking, gains in efficiency and accuracy are relatively easy to define with well understood costs savings and rapid returns on investment. The deployment of a wireless LAN in a corporate environment, though, may be more difficult to defend in terms of user efficiency cost savings. In this case, focus on ease of installation and long-term support cost savings in addition to meeting needs for mobility. Get more details on the feasibility of wireless LANs in offices.
  • Development. Some wireless applications require the development of client software to implement certain functions. For example, requirements may call for the utilization of handheld data collectors with built in scanners to perform inspections throughout a manufacturing plant. Users may scan a bar code at a particular point and answer question prompts on the data collector. This application would likely require custom software. In these cases, programmers must fully understand wireless impairments such as RF interference and limited coverage in order to include appropriate error recovery mechanisms. A wireless LAN is often referred to as transparent to the user, but this is only if the programmer takes into account issues related to wireless connectivity.
  • Installation and Testing. The installation phase of the project is when the tires hit the pavement. If the design is done effectively, then the installation should be a smooth process. For example, the design should specify where to mount the access points. It's generally best to place the access points as high as possible, but be practical. Warehouses have high ceilings; however, avoid mounting the access points so high that you need expensive equipment to reach them. Also, consider using Power over Ethernet (PoE) to run electricity to the access points. This avoids the time and costs of installing electrical outlets throughout the facility.

    After completing the installation, be sure to test for proper operation and coverage using 802.11 analyzers such as those from Airmagnet, Berkeley Varitronics, and Wildpackets. The testing may indicate the need to move some access points and possibly use different settings. Be certain to document access point locations and configurations if changed from the design. This will provide an aid to the people when supporting the operational system.

    In order to reduce risks in larger system deployments, think about starting with one or more pilot sites to test the solution with a limited number of users. The feedback from users during the pilot testing will often uncover problems with the design. Keep in mind that it's much less expensive to fix a problem with the design before installing the system throughout the entire company.

  • Operational Support. Before allowing users on the network, ensure there's definition and activation of adequate operational support. This includes elements such as trouble resolution (e.g., help desk and technical support), periodic maintenance, and system monitoring. What most people don't realize is that this phase of the system's life can be much more expensive than the cost of the installation. As a result, define enough details of the support elements to provide an ongoing budget.

    To ensure effective support, be sure there's a single phone number to call if problems arise. In most cases, this requires that the wireless users call an existing support system; however, be sure that the support providers understand how to handle peculiar wireless problems. Impairments, such as RF interference and multipath propagation, can baffle support staff not familiar with wireless LANs. The support staff will also need to fully understand the wireless LAN configuration and settings and have appropriate test tools to effectively troubleshoot and fix problems.

Jim Geier provides independent consulting services to companies developing and deploying wireless network solutions. He is the author of the book, Wireless LANs (SAMs, 2001), and regularly instructs workshops on wireless LANs.

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