WiFi network design has become a lot easier lately. Aerohive Networks, a company that sells a line of access points, is now offering a free, easy-to-use, Web-based WiFi Planner that is available to anyone. During testing I found that I could tell the Web-based software the characteristics of the office environment I was planning to put WiFi in, and it would tell me where to put the APs so that they would be most effective.
What was particularly nice was that I had complete control over nearly every aspect of the design, from the type of access point to the quality of signal I wanted to provide. And when I was done, the software provided me with the design ready to print and use for installation or budgeting. This is a huge change from the way things used to be.
Trying to figure out the best placement for your WiFi access point by yourself used to be something of a black art. You had to put the devices in places where you could run network cable, you made sure that you could get the required signal strength everywhere in your office that you needed wireless coverage, and you took into account different characteristics of the building materials that made up the environment. In the past, the method for doing all this consisted of a lot of guesswork, and not necessarily a lot of coverage.
Fortunately, WiFi design tools take most of the guesswork out of the process. With the right tool, it becomes fairly easy for someone familiar with the realities of an office and its network to pick spots for the access points, and to be assured that everyone in the office who needs it will get adequate coverage. Unfortunately, these tools have cost a lot, until now.
Aerohive, a company that makes a line of smart access points, is offering its design service for free with its Online WiFi Planner. To use it, you need to sign up for a demo account, but once you do that, you have access to a flexible and powerful Web-based design tool that can give you everything you need to design the WiFi environment for your company, regardless of the size or number of office spaces you occupy. To get started, I went to the Aerohive Website, clicked on the Demo button and filled in my contact information. The company e-mailed a confirmation that included an individual URL and my credentials.
I started trying to design a WiFi installation immediately, but if you’re paying attention, you probably shouldn’t do that. Before you actually jump right into designing your WiFi environment, there are several steps to take to keep from wasting a lot of time and effort. The first is to get a reasonably detailed drawing of the floor plan in a JPEG or PNG format to upload it to the tool. Doing it right requires information about the material that the office walls are built out of, such as dry wall, concrete or brick. The floor plan should reflect the position of any internal windows, elevator shafts, firewalls and so on. Finally, cable runs in the office should be indicated on the plans. If a floor plan in the required formats isn’t available, have one available on paper and use the planner to draw one out.
Using the WiFi Planner
Once I had the background information assembled, I took a look at the confirmation e-mail. It gives a link to a pair of videos that describe what to expect when using the free designer, and how to make it work. Unless you’re already familiar with the Aerohive software, you should do as I didn’t do, and watch the videos before starting. It’ll save you some wasted effort and useless pondering later.
Once in the WiFi Planner, I selected some basic information, such as the country (this affects which WiFi channels are available), what color to use for different types of materials and the default height above the floor for access points. I also uploaded the file containing the floor plan.
The planner isn’t able to tell from the drawing what the walls are made of, so I needed to designate this. The first step is to tell the software where the perimeter of the office is. Next I told it about the walls by selecting a building material from the drop-down list, and then selecting the beginning and ending point of the particular wall or other feature I was designating by placing a cross-hair cursor and clicking. The colored wall designation is superimposed over the image of the floor plan. A complex floor plan can be time-consuming, but you can save your work and come back to it later. Just make sure you keep that confirmation e-mail with your unique URL so you can get back in.
Once I’d finished telling the software what the walls are made out of, I was ready to place the APs. If you already have some in your office, you can place those manually. The auto-placement will then populate the drawing of your office with recommended locations for the type of access point selected, displaying the result in a colored rendering showing the AP and the signal strength surrounding it at the WiFi frequency being used. If this is an 802.11n design, it’ll show the coverage at both 5GHz and 2.4GHz.
Once I finished the basic design and AP placement, I took the time to make sure I had designated the correct APs planned for the real installation. I could change the type, frequency, output power and minimum acceptable signal strength for all of the APs or for individual APs. I also examined the APs’ locations to make sure they were places where you can pull cable, and not places where good coverage wasn’t necessary, such as restrooms. I was able to change locations by clicking on an AP and dragging it where I wanted it. In addition, I was able to correct marginal coverage by adding an AP.
The software will adjust the coverage pattern to accommodate changes. Once I was satisfied that the plan was finished, the planner created a PDF of the design that can be printed as a document useful for determining budget needs or to provide to an installer.
There are two things that it is important to be aware of when using the tool. The planner understandably only plans Aerohive access points. But it gives the complete operational characteristics of each, so existing APs on hand from another manufacturer can be incorporated; just choose the Aerohive product that most closely matches. Second, this product is free for a reason-your contact info will go to the Aerohive sales staff, and you can expect a call from them shortly after you sign up. Considering how much other WiFi planners cost, getting a call from a salesperson is a pretty minor cost, and Aerohive’s APs are apparently pretty good. Regardless, I liked the planner-it’s easy to use, it works well and it’s free.