Creating a Wi-Fi network in the workplace used to be a matter of making sure a few hotspots were available so employees could connect to the network from their laptops. Today, Wi-Fi is far more critically important to enterprises across every industry. Driven by the increasing number of consumer Wi-Fi devices being used in an organization, by new mobile applications and by the need to connect workers across offices, factories, shop floors and more, CIOs must plan carefully to create a truly enterprise-strength Wi-Fi network—robust, scalable and secure.
The Wi-Fi trend: Big and getting bigger
Statistics and trends point to the growing importance of Wi-Fi. In the United States, for example, Wi-Fi connections account for more than 37 percent of digital traffic over mobile phones. And about 90 percent of Internet access from tablet computers is done via Wi-Fi, not through a 3G or 4G network.
Accenture sees three trends especially driving this uptake of Wi-Fi within the enterprise.
Increasing numbers of Wi-Fi devices in the workplace. Each year brings more, and more varied, mobile devices into the office (a phenomenon that has been dubbed Bring Your Own Device, or BYOD). People now expect their personal mobile devices to be incorporated into the way they work, and expect readily available bandwidth for sending and receiving large data files.
Enterprise applications delivered via Wi-Fi. Increased Wi-Fi usage isn’t just about the devices; it’s also driven by what people want to do with those devices—and by what organizations are expecting their people and teams to do. Enterprises need their people to be available and connected as much as possible, wherever they are. This means that mobile applications will grow in sophistication and importance, and connectivity to enterprise software or other critical systems will become the norm. Accordingly, the Wi-Fi network needs to be reliable and secure, as well as scalable to support many users accessing information at the same time.
Wi-Fi scenarios beyond the office environment. The importance of Wi-Fi connectivity, and creative opportunities for Wi-Fi applications, now goes well beyond the typical corporate office environment. CIOs in industries like healthcare, utilities, mining, resources and more are thinking about ways that Wi-Fi networks can keep people connected with systems and one another.
Creative examples of Wi-Fi solutions in mines and industrial plants are beginning to appear. For example, Marathon Petroleum Co. has implemented a solution that integrates Wi-Fi, location-based technologies, and small gas detectors worn on a jacket or shirt lapel to remotely monitor incidents involving their employees over a facility covering about 1,000 acres.
Fixed Wi-Fi access points provide integrated wireless coverage for refinery units, and mobile Wi-Fi access points installed in trucks provide flexible coverage for workers moving around larger areas. The mobile units are connected to Marathon Petroleum’s central communications room by cellular networks. The Wi-Fi solution gives workers a greater sense of confidence that their safety is being monitored and that rapid intervention can take place in the event of an emergency.
According to Jerry Welch, former senior vice president of Marathon Petroleum’s refining organization, “This solution not only alerts onsite individuals to gas incidents but would also allow offsite colleagues to locate workers and rescue them if an event were to occur.”
Making your Wi-Fi network enterprise-strength
CIOs need to be putting in place, proactively, the Wi-Fi capabilities that can ensure their people and businesses can effectively operate in an environment where continuous connectivity is essential and presumed. The following are important components of a technology strategy that can create and continuously optimize an enterprise-strength Wi-Fi network.
Create a robust and scalable architecture
With Wi-Fi such an integral part of an organization’s overall IT infrastructure, it needs to be architected properly so that it can meet the demands of users, business units and locations. With so many devices coming into the workplace, the Wi-Fi architecture needs to be able to scale quickly.
One common option is to use an architecture design with centralized control to manage the entire infrastructure. Centralized administration enables more effective management, minimizing the need for field services. An end-to-end architecture includes:
- Intelligent access points, indoor and outdoor, which enable important network functions such as interference mitigation, resource management and band selection.
- A services component for critical network management, subscriber management and policy control. This delivers important scalability to the architecture, as it provides the flexibility to deploy, operate and manage networks with multiple access points.
- A mobile packet core, which offers standards-based functionality for common subscriber management, policy and authentication, delivering transparent service integration to Wi-Fi users.
Plan and manage from the start with a flexible technology roadmap
With Wi-Fi, as with all mobile technologies, the environment of devices, networks, vendors and standards is changing at breakneck speed. That means the Wi-Fi capability must be designed from the start to accommodate change and to enable ready migration. For example, most Wi-Fi devices and networks operate in the 2.4 GHz band; the resulting network congestion when too many devices are in play is an increasing concern because it can interfere with critical business needs.
To address the issue, enterprises are moving toward 802.11n and 5 GHz networks; in some cases, companies are even disabling access on the 2.4 GHz band. The wider 40 MHz channels used by 802.11n in the 5 GHz band support the highest data transmission rates.
Other changes are in store as new standards attempt to deal with congestion and as technology innovations proliferate. Therefore, it’s critical that CIOs plan for those changes and prepare for the probability of migrating from one type of service to another.
Protect the business through more comprehensive security capabilities
The BYOD trend, whereby network access to personal devices is granted within an enterprise, comes with a host of implications for network control and security. Organizations need to know who is on the network and why, enforce access policies and then maintain compliance and audit requirements.
Security concerns are real in that without proper enterprise security, a single device could expose the entire organization to malware or espionage. As tablets and smartphones within the enterprises proliferate, the applications that are downloaded by the employees (often running in the background) can access the data on the phone and report back.
Solutions are already in place or being devised to cope with these kinds of security risks. More effective security capabilities, integrated with the Wi-Fi network, provide automated identification, onboarding and policy enforcement with provisioning to personal devices while enabling device-level security. With apps that run on employee devices, security personnel can provide centralized control over how a device can be used, what services or applications can be run and what resources can be accessed by that device and user.
Work closely with telecommunications service providers
Enterprise CIOs should work closely with carriers to tightly integrate Wi-Fi capabilities, because users increasingly expect seamless transition of service from cellular to Wi-Fi. Of course, such cooperation with providers happens naturally with enterprises that are in the business of selling Wi-Fi access to customers (those who, for example, run stadiums or convention centers). However, all CIOs in any business should bear in mind the importance of Wi-Fi offloading to major mobile carriers.
Consider alternate sourcing to manage complexity
As Wi-Fi solutions grow in terms of both importance and complexity, many CIOs are considering working with an external provider to help manage the technological and organizational changes required. Wi-Fi managed services options are likely to become more appealing to enterprises to achieve flexible and iterative enterprise application development. A managed service also assures enterprises of ongoing access to the latest skills and technologies needed to run and maintain the Wi-Fi environment.
Conclusion: Skills and commitment
As Wi-Fi moves from the office and coffee shops to factory floors, hospitals, stadiums and coal mines, so does the need for designing the network differently. New tools and skills are needed to manage and run these complex and ever-changing wireless networks. Wi-Fi enablement has now become so critical to business operations, and to enabling better collaboration and mobile working, that it needs to be an integral part of any CIO’s agenda.
About the authors
Shahid Ahmed is a senior executive and Accenture Cisco Business Group’s Americas practice lead.
Vaibhav Parmar is a senior executive in the Network-Enabled Solutions group within Accenture's Technology Consulting organization.
Sergey Batalin is a senior manager in the Network-Enabled Solutions group within Accenture's Technology Consulting organization.