If you’ve ever been out on a job (or are part of a network operations team), you know the countless hours that can be lost troubleshooting a network.
As a matter of fact, a 2019 research report from Sirkin Research and LiveAction corroborates this problem, revealing that 43% of networking teams claim they spend too much time troubleshooting network issues. When asked about the most common type of networking challenges they encounter, they said that the wireless network was the number one challenge by a long shot.
With wireless playing such a crucial role in business operations (and everyday life), networking pros appear to be struggling to maintain their performance. And for good reason! There are several characteristics inherent to wireless technology that can make it particular tricky for networking teams to manage and maintain.
Let’s look at five areas that could be impacting your troubleshooting:
1. Increased demand vs fixed capacity
Regardless of the size of the deployment, every Wi-Fi design ultimately has a fixed capacity. This is especially problematic since Wi-Fi is a single-user protocol – only one client can communicate with an access point (AP) at a time (there are a few exceptions, but this is essentially true). And each AP has a limit for the number of users it can accommodate at a minimum data rate. As the number of users grows, the time available for each user decreases, and at some point, every design degrades to where each user is not getting the minimum data rate the network was originally specified to deliver. The good news is that these problems are easy to detect, and even predict, with certain network monitoring solutions. The bad news is that it is difficult to address over-capacity issues without a significant change in the overall Wi-Fi deployment, especially in areas where the Wi-Fi coverage is already dense.
2. Wireless networks are shared environments
Unlike a wired network, Wi-Fi sends its signals over-the-air. And to make matters worse the Wi-Fi channels are “open”, meaning other technologies can use the same channels at the same time, intentionally or unintentionally. What that means from a troubleshooting perspective is that while wired networks are essentially bulletproof at Layer 1 (the physical layer), Wi-Fi networks can be a hotbed of trouble at Layer 1. And very specific tools are needed to troubleshoot these problems, along with experience in radio frequency propagation (something you might be lacking if you’re a pure network engineer).
3. The wireless client calls the shots
Although APs control a great deal of what goes on in a Wi-Fi network, there’s one critical area where they forfeit control to the clients – connectivity. It’s the client, not the AP, that determines which AP to connect to, and when to switch to a different AP if multiple are available. This causes a common problem in Wi-Fi networks, the “sticky client.” This happens when a client device stays connected to an AP when it would be better off connected to another. You’ve probably experienced this yourself. Your Wi-Fi signal strength looks good, but your throughput is horrible, and you wait forever for a simple web page to download. In this case your client is probably using a simple algorithm based on signal strength to determine when to look for another AP. When the signal strength is strong it hangs around, even if performance is bad. This is a well-known problem, and newer Wi-Fi specs have ways of handling this better, but the problem is still prevalent, and it will take time before all clients are built to the latest specs. Troubleshooting this issue can be a bit tricky because every client is free to use its own algorithm to determine when to roam, and most don’t publish their algorithms, so although you may suspect a sticky client it can be a bit difficult to prove without detailed analysis.
4. Interoperability is essential
Although interoperability has been and continues to be a major focus for the industry, the vast number of 802.11 specifications (and the growing number of required and optional features) tremendously complicates interoperability. On top of that, requirements can often be open to interpretation, leading to slightly different design choices from one vendor to another. Interoperability testing through organizations like the Wi-Fi Alliance (WFA) go a long way in identifying incompatibilities, but they are not foolproof. Though typically not done maliciously, incompatible design choices present a major issue when it comes to troubleshooting. Identifying problems that result from a specific vendor’s design choice typically requires detailed knowledge of multiple 802.11 specifications and lengthy troubleshooting sessions at the Wi-Fi packet level. This is much more likely to be a problem in environments with purpose-build appliances, like healthcare or retail, then it is in a typical client/AP environment.
5. Wireless issues require wireless expertise
For many networking teams, readily available wireless experts aren’t always a given. Although modeled after other networking technologies, Wi-Fi is just different. It is a unique networking technology that requires specific training to become well versed. Without in-depth wireless knowledge and training, troubleshooting can take much longer, or simply be beyond the capabilities of the existing staff. And data for troubleshooting often requires that an expert to be at the physical location where the problem is occurring since the wireless portion of the transmission is only traveling a few hundred feet. That expert also needs dedicated wireless tools for troubleshooting that require an additional level of expertise.
While not a replacement for the dedicated wireless troubleshooting tools, there are solutions designed to help address some of today’s major wireless networking challenges.
For larger organizations, networking teams often rely on Network Performance Management and Diagnostics (NPMD) solutions that deliver additional visibility into the network. From a wireless perspective, these platforms allow you to look at the number of connected Wi-Fi users, how much time they’re spending on the network, and the exact data rates their connecting at. This way, you can proactively monitor and detect potential wireless problems. For example, they can see when an AP is oversubscribed with too many users, and help the team set user thresholds to prevent users from experiencing slower speeds and reduced performance. Although there will always be certain wireless issues that require specific wireless training and tools, NPMD tools can help reduce the number of issues teams need to escalate to wireless experts.
Spending too much time troubleshooting can ultimately reduce productivity. As a wireless or networking professional, be sure you’re explore all the options for granular network (and wireless) visibility.
This is a guest post from Jay Bothelo
Jay, the Director of Engineering at LiveAction holds a Master’s Degree in electrical engineering and has been working in networking as an engineer and product manager for over 25 years.