How WiFi 6+AI Will Change IT Systems Forever

eWEEK NETWORKING ANALYSIS: WiFi6 plus AI-based innovation delivers digital transformation and reduces network manager pain.

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It’s been well documented here on eWEEK and other sites that WiFi6 is coming, and it’s going to change the industry forever. I believe this to be true because WiFi6 is the first WiFi specification designed specifically for a world where the majority of endpoints will connect wirelessly. In fact, most newer devices don’t have a wired port on them, making WiFi the only option.

This has profound impact on corporate networks, because the presumption for wireless was that it was the secondary network. Companies built rock-solid wired networks and augmented them with WiFi. Wired was considered the performance network and wireless was more for convenience. Not so anymore. Many businesses have built digital transformation services around mobility that depend on WiFi. Consider stadiums that roll out fan applications or schools that use tablets for immersive learning or hotels that are trying to attract more conferences. WiFi is mission critical, and not all solutions are created equal.

WiFi innovation needs to relieve network manager pain

Unfortunately, the rise in the business value of WiFi is coupled with an increase in management headaches and pain. Historically, WiFi has been notoriously flaky and difficult to troubleshoot. Most workers aren’t very network savvy (although they think they are) and have a hard time articulating what the problem is. Most of the time, people think it’s an association issue, but it could also be roaming problems, DNS, DHCP or RADIUS. 

Another issue causing network engineers pain is the growth of IoT. Devices such as point of sale, medical endpoints, kiosks and autonomous machines are being added to company networks at a furious pace. This is driving the need for greater security and higher-density WiFi. 

WiFi 6 solves many of these problems as the standard has a number of new features built into it, such as target wake time, MU-MIMO, BSS coloring and orthogonal frequency-division multiple access (OFDMA). All of the new features help WiFi perform better through an increase in bandwidth and a reduction in congestion so more clients can connect simultaneously. 

However, WiFi 6 isn’t a panacea to all wireless woes. To solve other issues, customers must rely on extended wireless innovation from the vendor community to deliver better integration, automation, visibility and interoperability. 

WiFi is the foundation of MTI’s digital education plans

Mitchell Technical Institute (MTI), a South Dakota-based technical college, was struggling with getting its WiFi network to meet its current--and, more importantly, future--needs. The school wanted to modernize its teaching methods and implement better collaboration tools to enable teachers and students to work better together. This would build upon an already innovating culture that existed at the school.

A core component of MTI’s educational transformation was an upgrade of the network, particularly the WiFi component. A reliable, higher-performance wireless network was needed to enable the next wave of classroom applications and software-based learning programs that eliminated pen and paper and gave students greater mobility. 

Also, MTI required a solution that could easily be integrated with its Microsoft Teams and Intune systems. Another consideration is that the school was starting to roll out IoT devices that connected wirelessly. This included security cameras, HVAC systems and other non-traditional IT endpoints. 

Supporting the school's desire to transform posed a challenge for the network operations team, because the legacy WiFi network was not stable enough to support real-time collaboration and other advanced applications. An influx of new devices would exacerbate the problem. One of the biggest areas of pain was troubleshooting problems. The hours or even days to find and resolve problems would not be acceptable with the digital educational plans of the school. 

MTI wanted a WiFi solution that addressed more than connectivity 

For its next-generation WiFi solution, MTI’s IT team evaluated several vendors including the incumbent vendor before choosing Aruba, a Hewlett Packard Enterprise company. All of the vendors offer advanced WiFi 6 APs, but Aruba offered a number of other features that made the network perform better and improve security. In addition to the WiFi 6 APs, the deployment consisted of Aruba access switches, mobility controllers, network management and policy and role-based access control. 

As MTI went through the vendor selection process, it looked past the basic features in the standard and wanted a vendor that delivered innovation beyond basic WiFi. The price points of WiFi can vary dramatically from vendor to vendor, but not all WiFi is created equal. 

For example, Aruba has managed to stay ahead of the commodity curve for years with its antenna and driver design, product quality and features client ClientMatch, which optimizes wireless connectivity using AI-based radio management and Air Slice, which provides performance guarantees for specific applications. It’s these features that enable an Aruba WiFi network to do more than a low-cost vendor, like Ubquiti, which offers basic connectivity and not much more. 

Dynamic segmentation capabilities were particularly appealing to David Boos, MTI’s Director of Technology as it enabled MTI to separate and secure user and device traffic on the wired and wireless network, regardless of application or service. The feature also lets MTI assign roles on the fly to wired ports, maximizing the switching resources. Without dynamic segmentation, the configuration would need to be done manually, which has significant administrative overhead and in a fast-paced environment; this can lead to human error which results in downtime or security holes. 

The infrastructure also makes IoT connectivity easier, because it supports a range of protocols. “We were most impressed with the fact that Aruba’s Wi-Fi 6 APs go beyond the 802.11ax standard to deliver powerful capabilities like AI-powered optimization and energy savings with Green AP mode, smart traffic control and integrated Bluetooth and Zigbee for IoT-readiness,” Boos said. 

Boos also noted that ClearPass seamlessly integrated into MTI’s applications simplifying role-based access control, mobile device management (MDM) and mobile application management (MAM). This increased the reliability of the network and provided better visibility into the WiFi network leading to critical insights for the on-going network health. 

Higher performance WiFi enables students and faculty to better take advantage of mobility

The high performance and increased reliability allow MTI’s students to confidently use their mobile devices to log into the schools learning management systems to complete coursework and tests. Students also have mobile access to the school’s ERP system to manage financial aid and other academic and business processes. The advanced capabilities, particularly dynamic segmentation, has been important for campus events--such as MTI’s VEX robotic tournaments--because it provides the secure access needed by the tournament managers and participants. 

The new network gives Boos the confidence to tackle whatever challenge may come down the road. Higher education is highly competitive and now MTI has the network in place to stay in front of the innovation curve and sustain its leadership position. 

Zeus Kerravala is an eWEEK regular contributor and the founder and principal analyst with ZK Research. He spent 10 years at Yankee Group and prior to that held a number of corporate IT positions.