How to boost Wi-Fi performance: Experts talk planning, troubleshooting

With wireless now the preferred, default, and increasingly only access in the majority of in-building, campus, metro-scale hotspot and wide-area settings, achieving optimal performance is a key objective for IT departments.

Since radio-frequency (RF) propagation always involves a high degree of variability, it’s often difficult to predict the precise behavior of a given installation. Variables include operating conditions, user and application traffic demands, and the capabilities and settings of individual vendor products. When mobility, Wi-Fi testing and verification are also taken into consideration, performance evaluation can become very complex indeed.

Performance variables include throughput, coverage, time-bounded traffic (primarily telephony and streaming video), reliability, security, rate-vs.-range behavior and traffic varying with motion, range, time of day and location. Perhaps the most important is capacity – the ability to successfully address the requirements of all traffic demands in any given location and at any given moment.

With Wi-Fi equipment price/performance ratios continually improving with advances in standards, technologies and implementations, many IT shops have taken a brute-force approach: Just upgrade and/or add access points (AP) and Wi-Fi controllers, Ethernet switches and related hardware as indicated.

Unfortunately, this approach often doesn’t optimize performance and is costly in terms of both equipment and the time required of network operations professionals.

In the interest of finding a better way, we interviewed a number of experts to derive a set of best practices for Wi-Fi performance optimization. We focused on the three major phases of any large-scale Wi-Fi installation: planning and pre-installation; post-installation functional and performance testing and verification; and dealing with ad-hoc performance issues (troubleshooting). We also sought suggestions for a requisite operations toolset, and, we asked about future directions for Wi-Fi performance optimization.

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