Home life is changing. The mobile phone is so commonplace that children as young as eight are equipped with an Apple iPhone 5 or Samsung Galaxy S3 and home internet speeds are continually increasing, making online multi-player gaming and Skype calls with family and friends the norm. Users expect this same experience in the workplace, but too often they are disappointed. Whether it is due to an overloaded network or connection issues, the workplace network experience is under strain.
A range of factors contribute to the problem. Networks are becoming increasingly complex, with virtualisation extending from the data centre to the desktop and cloud services growing in popularity. BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) is here to stay, reflecting shifting work patterns and cultural change. Users like the freedom, spontaneity and instant-on availability of mobile and portable devices. Employers like the creativity, productivity and extended working they encourage from staff. But network performance and security concerns can arise when employees want to use their personal devices at work.
Problems may result from a proliferation of Wi-Fi devices which negate original wireless planning assumptions, excessive use of bandwidth by unauthorised applications, configuration errors, poor application delivery infrastructure or other sources. The inclusion of voice and video adds more complexity and pushes bandwidth to its limits.
Not only is there more contention for available wireless channels and bandwidth, reports from Gartner suggest that many personal devices can gobble significantly more network resources than, say, conventional laptops because of their lower powered and less well specified wireless modules. Solving performance problems is made more difficult and time-consuming by the challenge of trying to ascertain whose responsibility they are, particularly when all groups are reporting green KPIs.
As well as impacting on the user experience, the network is increasingly a strategic asset to the business, and any downtime or degradation in network or application performance will directly impact the organisation’s bottom line.
For those managing the network, the challenge is two-fold: proactively improve and optimise performance to ensure that the network delivers what users and the business require, and resolve any problems that arise as quickly as possible to minimise expensive, frustrating downtime. To address this, I’d recommend a 4-step programme:
1. Consider The Network & Apps Running On It
It’s not enough to say: “It’s not the network” or “My servers are fine”. The network and the applications it supports are increasingly interdependent, and IT teams need to work together across departmental boundaries and avoid finger-pointing to solve problems quickly.
2. Bring Together Data From All Systems
A new acronym has been defined to address this: Application Aware Network Performance Management (AANPM). It refers to systems which provide a one-stop shop for end-to-end visibility of the end user application experience. When a performance problem hits a key application, engineers have all the information they need to track down the root cause – from the wireless environment, across WAN connections, through the network infrastructure (physical and virtual) and on into all tiers of the server and application environment.
3. Ensure The WLAN Can Handle BYOD Growth
Key to this is a thorough understanding of current Wi-Fi capacity and coverage: for example AP locations, the position of walls, doors and metallic structures, the locations of especially busy areas like meeting rooms, staff restaurants, reception areas and waiting rooms, and which departments currently rely most on wireless access. Engineers should also consider the underlying wired network infrastructure that will support the APs. With 802.11n offering wireless data rates of up to 300 Mbit/s, Cat 6 cabling and a 1 Gbps capability is virtually essential. Contemporary design tools enable engineers to fine-tune designs iteratively to simulate BYOD growth and office changes.
4. Manage & Optimise Performance
A network application and performance solution will provide the visibility engineers need to document and audit the health of their network. They need to use it proactively to spot poor performance and identify where the paths of applications or servers are running slowly, so that the slowest and most critical paths can be addressed. The information can be used to prioritise projects such as server upgrades and make the business case for approval.
It can also support installation of new equipment and applications by verifying that what has been done has worked and ensuring that it has not had a negative impact on performance elsewhere. The data can also prove (or otherwise) the impact of changes to the network such as virtualisation, WAN optimisation or data centre consolidation.