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How to Upgrade Your Mission-Critical Business WiFi

By Ian Price on 27th Jun 2017

How not to break your mission critical WiFi

A couple of weeks back I put some thoughts together on what comprises a Mission Critical business WiFi network and how to go about building one successfully. Not least on the latter point, was my usual soap-box-diatribe of ‘decide what you want first, and then build it’ – the result tends to be so much better.

However, assuming that you did all that successfully, and you’re now relaxed in the happy knowledge that you have a great network solution, what happens as time passes and the network begins to age?

More functionality is required from it, users seem to have multiplied, capacity demands have grown exponentially, and compatibility of various network components begins to break down, and so on. None of which, naturally, you could possibly have known about at design time…

Upgrading your Mission-Critical WiFi

Time for change; but is it evolution or revolution?  And, how to keep the network up and running through all the changes without breaking it – it’s Mission Critical after all.

As usual, it depends - Where are your network Pressure Points? Which takes us back to the upfront planning. First of all, consider what the real pressure points in the network are i.e. number of users; capacity; functionality?

Some of these issues can be dealt with on an evolutionary basis. From a wireless perspective, it may well be practicable to upgrade the access points to a higher performance version and, assuming for a mission critical network that the original design included a degree of access point resilience (i.e. loss of a single access point does not compromise the overall coverage, capacity, etc.), then it’s logical that access points could be changed one-by-one without any user disruption.  

Time consuming but relatively safe - if the core switching needs upgrading to deal with additional capacity, then an overlay of higher performance switches with gradual fail over of the access points to the new switches should fit the bill on the same basis.

So far, so good

Some problems though, are more intractable.  

Over the last few years, we’ve seen a massive acceleration in the race between manufacturers to get faster, smarter, more functional products out into the market with ever reducing gaps between releases.  

Apart from the risk of a higher level of ‘in-field’ problems caused by reduced design validation and testing cycles to meet the timescales, the issue this creates is that the backwards compatibility period between products and software releases also gets shorter and shorter. The old rule of ‘current release plus two previous versions’ often still holds, but now only over months rather than years as in the past.  

The pragmatic route is to maximise your investment protection by declining the latest and greatest features for as long as you can. But here’s the ‘gotcha’; the level of cyber-threats out there is generating increasingly frequent product releases and patches that you may be forced to take-on to protect your network. So much for pragmatism…

Viva la Mission-Critical revolution

Here, revolution may be the only answer – build an overlay, test it, test it again, and prepare to switch over at a ‘quiet’ time? Not necessarily. By creative use of dual bands in wireless networks, the overlay and existing networks can co-exist for a while, allowing users and facilities to be transferred gradually from old to new without the worries of a ‘big bang’ switch over.

Zero disruption

So, there is always a zero disruption solution? It would be a braver man than I am to bet my shirt on that one. The message though, is to step back, think about what you need and get creative about how to do it.  

What Next?

For advice on designing or upgrading your WiFi network and associated systems, to the deployment of security solutions like Next Generation Firewalls and Endpoint Network Security, please contact Ensign Communications for a chat with our technical team.

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