The Annual WLAN Admin Nail-Biter

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Riddle me this: what vertical sees this kind of curve once or twice a year? That spike on the right will almost triple in the in the next week, if that helps. Let me put you out of your misery if you don’t know… that’s the “back to school” client count at my big university as the Fall Semester gets ready to spring back to life.

For WLAN administrators in the education sector, there is a definite cycle of highs and even-highers (you thought I was gonna say highs and lows, you little rascal. We don’t have lows any more) associated with the academic calendar. Now that I’m in the thick of yet another upswing, I thought I’d share with you all what is on my mind (and no doubt the minds of many people on campus) during this couple of week period that comes ’round every year when it comes to the network.

  • Stability Above All. It doesn’t matter what the WLAN product specs are, are how fancy our organizational marketing is the WLAN is unstable. We stop making any significant network changes almost a full month ahead of the opening period, and rely heavily on the quality of the underlying code and build quality of all of bits and pieces coupled with our network designs. Stability is the absolute primary goal in my mind.
  • Scaling and Predictability. Our WLAN environment will serve almost 30K simultaneous devices from over 4,000 access points at the busiest parts of our days. All of our infrastructure was bought and provisioned for large client devices and future growth. But sometimes- even when we’re operating well within vendor spec- flaws emerge when thousands of clients get busy on the network. We have gone so far as to abandon features that introduce unpredictability at scale, because of the importance of stability.
  • Performance. You can have a stable, predictable network that really doesn’t perform all that well. We strive to provide network services that perform with such consistent zoom that they are taken for granted while being used and missed when our clients go elsewhere.
  • Ease of Use. A significant portion of our users are new every year, and have no experience with a secure, non-residential WLAN environment. You don’t get thousands and thousands of clients quickly on-boarded to that secure network environment if you’ve made it too onerous. The longer getting all of the various device types onto the WLAN takes, the higher the risk of customer dissatisfaction.

As I write this at lunch during the busy move-in week, things are looking very good on all of these points. Our trouble tickets are low, or support staff are in great spirits, and by our many barometers, our clients are generally happy. That’s not to say we’re “done”. Part of our annual exercise is also realizing that big numbers on graphs may not reflect that our clients are really and truly using the network in ways now- as they get settled on campus- like they will a week from now. As it is every year, vigilance follows getting to our big numbers.

Thanks for reading.

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