Hey, designing Wi-Fi that works well is easy, right? I mean, the guys on the wired side have big systems to monitor their switches and routers and what not, but, we don’t have to be concerned about wires. Like the Dilbert cartoon said, how hard can it be NOT to run wires?? And going beyond basic coverage, to adding applications like voice, location services, and asset tracking; this all happens with a single AP just like at home, right? Right??
If only it was that easy.
When I started this post, I set out to describe how Ekahau had helped me with location-based designs and deployments. I didn’t always have control over the specific wireless hardware that would be deployed to support the location-based service. My customers aren’t always from the IT department. Sometimes they are from marketing, or business operations, or the business/store owner. Before I could finish this, Ekahau made life even easier with the release of BLE support. Here are a few reasons why Ekahau Site Survey has become an important tool in my bag, and why the addition of BLE is so important.
While I’ve worked for solution providers for the majority of my career, not all of my employers have manufactured wireless equipment. Specifically, the location analytics company that I recently worked for provides a SaaS overlay solution with virtually no physical equipment sold by them in order to implement the service on a customer’s wireless infrastructure. Similar to VARs and consultants, we would see customer requests from a variety of different equipment manufacturers. Sometimes, we would even see a variety of different wireless manufacturers within the same customer, either due to an ongoing technology refresh or because of acquisitions. While many manufacturers have Wi-Fi design tools, the capabilities and functionality of these tools varies wildly between them. Some offer free tools, others come at a cost to customers (sometimes a significant cost). Some are more management focused, with an emphasis on up/down performance monitoring, while others go further into the complete lifecycle management. Having the ability to use a single tool, across many different hardware manufacturers, allows me to establish a consistent workflow and output, as well as simplify the customer onboarding experience for any customer.
Back to that opening comment about wireless networks being easy. What about when working with more complex topics, such as location accuracy, or validating an AP count to a marketing firm whose primary interest is in advertising revenue, based on the number of guests using the network? Customers who are looking for quality Wi-Fi come from multiple different disciplines. They can be at the top of their game in their respective fields, and yet they turn to Wi-Fi professionals to assist with the designs because they know we strive to be at the top of our technology. Using the examples above, I’m not going to try to tell a marketing executive or business owner how to do their job, but I can definitely help them design and implement better Wi-Fi that delivers on their requirements. Visualization tools help to communicate the technical details in a way that’s more easily understandable. When combined with the report templates, the workflow and outputs needed for each project becomes quick and predictable.
Advanced Wi-Fi based services are where a dedicated product like Ekahau really stands out. Many management tools have the ability to do at least basic planning, but that’s where most product similarities come to an end. Planning functionality may be a basic heat map that takes a map of a floor plan, pinpoints where APs are currently installed, and then shows a “predicted” heat map coverage over the map. Other products may provide a tool for identifying and adjusting wall composition and attenuation values. Fewer products will provide modeling templates that attempt to capture network requirements. The intention is to adjust the predictive planner so that it better understands what the design needs. Is it pure coverage with a low SNR, or higher data rates? Does it need to support voice with roaming? Are there areas where wireless equipment can’t be installed? Is there coverage coming from above or below the current floor? What about those location-based services? And still, a predictive tool is not always the right tool for the network designer.
Ekahau has made location-based service designs more consistent through both the planning tool, as well as visualizations specific to the application use case. While the planning tools provide a good starting point for a design, the ability to visually see the impact that moving an AP can have on a design immediately provides welcome versatility. I can start a design with a customer the other way: start with a blank floor plan, and demonstrate the coverage impact that adding an AP to the floor makes, and the areas affected. Being able to define the amount of AP overlap, and then quantifying that visually is a key functionality. By incorporating the requirements into the planning tool, such as how the APs and channels are distributed throughout the physical environment, helps to ensure that goals are met. In addition, it enables you to identify and resolve problems before an implementation begins. This level of reporting also helps in educating the customer on how or why AP placement and AP numbers have been determined.
When I was first introduced to BLE services a few years back, none of the planning tools I saw had a method to address this. It made some sense at the time. BLE beacons are typically deployed in three ways: AP embedded, USB powered, or battery powered. The AP embedded beacons were the easiest, since the AP location was already modeled. I could try adjusting the properties of the 2.4 GHz radio in the tool to simulate how the BLE radio would propogate. The other types of BLE beacons were harder to simulate, since they were likely mounted at different heights than the typical ceiling mounted APs. Similarly, USB powered beacons might be connected into USB ports on digital displays, or other objects. While providing power to the beacon, it also provides a big attenuation surface, other than a wall/ceiling/floor, that most planning software has a method of understanding. Finally, taking all the physical installation aspects into account, traditional Wi-Fi planning software does not comprehend how a mixture of all three types of beacons potentially play together, in a way that still accomplishes the location-based service requirements needed.
My original designs with BLE used a method similar to what is described above. AP properties (for the 2.4 GHz radio) were tuned to represent what the battery of USB-powered beacon would look like. These model APs would then be dropped along a floor plan, along the walls or other mounting options that were available. Finally, I would use the measurement tool to manually check distances between the beacons across a floor plan to validate the expected coverage levels from the particular placements.
With the addition of BLE into the Ekahau product, a design can be done first to ensure that proper Wi-Fi specs are met. This will put the BLE enabled APs in an optimum position for providing Wi-Fi service. The extra value here is that the deployment can then be visualized from the BLE perspective to uncover areas where BLE needs to be augmented — using battery or USB-powered beacons. Ekahau’s database of BLE products has been growing consistently along with the database of wireless products; the multi-vendor challenge has been addressed. Some designs may call for one vendor’s BLE beacons to be installed underneath another vendor’s Wi-Fi infrastructure.