Any business that needs an Internet connection knows that wireless access points, and all the mobility and flexibility they provide, are huge productivity boosters. But picking the right Wi-Fi wireless networking solution for a business is no longer a simple task. Gone are the days of simply plugging a wireless access point into an Ethernet cable and turning it on.
The wireless routers you can buy from the local electronics retailer might give you the access you need, but they won't be robust enough to support a large number of users. They also won't provide more than the simplest security measures -- crucial for the smaller business now that wireless access points have become a convenient avenue for hackers to enter a business' network. If you call on the big dogs, you can blanket your office with the strongest, speediest, and most airtight wireless network imaginable, but that's often more than the small or midsize business needs.
Smaller businesses need a wireless networking system that's more impressive than consumer-grade devices and less intimidating than the hefty enterprise equipment -- in both pricing and feature sets. And smaller businesses are often more cost-conscious not only of the up-front product cost, but also of the total cost of ownership over the next three to five years.
There are options out there sized right for small and midsize businesses, but finding them requires that the smaller business knows exactly what it needs. To that end, the smaller business should first consider the following questions while searching for the right Wi-Fi solution.
What Do Smaller Businesses Want (in a Router)?
The first thing a small to midsize business needs to do is examine its real needs. Do you need Wi-Fi everywhere, or just a few select regions of the office where workers congregate? Do you need to support 100, 200, 500 users all at once, or just a few at a time? How important are speed and range? Be sure to think beyond the present. Peer into your corporate crystal ball and make sure any plans include room for growth or new usage scenarios that might crop up as your business evolves.
Diana Zhou, product marketing manager, SMB portfolio, with Nortel, suggests that small to midsize businesses "check what is available in the market and what others are using. Visit vendor Web sites or consult with other SMB owners" to find out what works for them. She adds, "Choose a trusted channel partner." If there is a company your business already works with for networking equipment, it's worth speaking to it and listening to its recommendations.
Security should play a very important role in your decision-making process. "Enterprise-grade products' security is definitely more stringent than SMB or consumer counterparts, e.g., enterprise grade has to be compliant to HIPAA or PCI standards for health care or retailing industries," Zhou says. "Enterprise grade also has more firewall policy to configure, which is probably too complex and too costly to be implemented in SMB or consumer grade products. For SMB grade Wi-Fi routers, definitely look for encryption like WPA and WPA2 and turn them on. Also look for MAC filtering, and be sure to block SSID broadcast," and, she adds, absolutely change the factory-set user ID and password.
Smaller Businesses Need Support
You also need to consider support from the hardware itself and the vendor that supplies it. There are two key support angles. First, check for support that's built into the product and reflected as simple and easy-to-use features and controls. For example, does it have an intuitive GUI, automated wizards, preconfigured defaults, etc.? There is also support as a post-sales activity and reflected in having a live person available for help with setup and troubleshooting.
"For the SMB without an in-house dedicated IT department, simplicity is the key to product acceptance," says Zhou. "That, complemented by some level of support purchased from channel partners, would give the SMB the peace of mind for timely and thorough resolution."
Lastly, don't be afraid to ask your vendors to install and configure the APs. Your vendor will use trusted installers who know what to look for inside your office and can pick optimal locations for setting up the equipment. It might be worth the extra cost, especially if your SMB doesn't have a dedicated IT staff.
Eric M. Zeman has covered mobile technology for the past seven years. He contributes stories about the wireless and mobile industry to the InformationWeek Over The Air blog as well as Phonescoop.com. Previously, he was editor-in-chief of Broadband-Today.com and Mobile Enterprise magazine and was a regular contributor to Laptop magazine and Wireless Week's [email protected] e-newsletter.