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Wireless wisdom
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Wireless wisdom 

SolarWinds provides some of these answers with the release of Network Performance Monitor (NPM) version 11.5. Engineered to serve wireless networks of all sizes, the product provides businesses with the ability to automate certain aspects of the management process. This includes network mapping to improve coverage and capacity planning, which prevents network outages and resulting downtime.

Chris LaPoint, vice president of product management for SolarWinds, shares some insights about NPM, including the benefits it brings for enterprise users and how automation can improve the capabilities of wireless networks.

IT in Canada: What led to the development of NPM 11.5?
LaPoint: Our heritage is through listening to our customers, both directly and through our community of tens of thousands called Thwack, (which lets) them guide where we take the product next. What we heard was there was a lot of angst around the explosion of mobility within organizations and the amount of issues that are creating and the stress it’s placing on wireless networks in particular.

More devices, sometimes as many as three or four per person are showing up on wireless networks, and there has been (a great deal of) concern about wireless coverage issues and troubleshooting. That really drove the creation of our wireless heat map technology.

The other (issue) that IT teams were coming to us with was the fact that they had tools provided to them by the makers of their wireless infrastructure, but they don’t want to add another console or user interface to figure out what’s going on. They were already using SolarWinds to monitor their wired infrastructure, and they wanted to use it to not only monitor the wireless infrastructure, but also troubleshoot it. Wireless heat maps are an incredibly useful tool for doing that.

As (our customers) think about the expansion of BYOD in many organizations and how it leads to bring your own application, the usage of SaaS- and cloud-based applications and the stress that’s placing on network capacity. This is especially evident on the branch offices, data centre branch offices and the Internet. There has to be a better view into the overall capacity of network, and they need to get ahead of it.

ITIC: Why is now the time for a product like this?
CL: I think that now is the time because the number of tools within an organization is really out of control. In a typical environment, you’ve got a wireless monitoring tool, a server monitoring tool and a network monitoring tool. You can also have a variety of other tools you can deploy for various purposes.

What we’re trying to do is provide consolidation in a single pane of glass to look at both wired and wireless infrastructures, and we feel like it’s overdue to have that view of the network. The distinction between wired and wireless is going away, in terms of importance.

Now, it’s critical to the business function, so (instead of) looking at it in a way that you would use traditional wired network monitoring and a physical infrastructure, you’ve got to look at the wireless infrastructure and troubleshooting in the same way. I think that the realization (of this) is certainly on the minds of our customers.

ITIC: What benefits does implementing NPM bring businesses?
CL: One (benefit) is the fact that it gets them to create a single pane of glass for the wireless network, whether it’s wired or wireless. As they think about troubleshooting, it becomes more imperative that they can reduce the amount of time it takes to resolve issues.

The second (benefit) is being able to understand where you have capacity issues in your network in a more proactive fashion, so that you can plan it better. This enables IT to get out of its reactive mode and into more of a proactive mode around meeting the needs of certain services and applications as they are rolled out.

ITIC: How does the automation of wireless network mapping help to enhance wireless coverage?
CL: Wireless heat maps allow you to see a visualization of coverage and (determine whether) the signal strength is good, bad or week in particular areas within an office, branch office or site. That is extremely useful as a network engineer is trying to resolve a particular connectivity issue.

One of the things we’ve done beyond providing a wireless heat map is the concept of a virtual site survey. Typically, the way that wireless heat maps are built, we interrogate the access point at that site to understand what that coverage looks like.

There are, however, walls that can have a serious impact and other types of devices which can affect wireless signal strength. The actual wireless coverage as experienced by the user might actually be different than what the picture shows.

With a virtual site survey, rather than have someone walk around with a laptop in that office to check the wireless coverage and enhance the accuracy of the map, this feature allows you to enhance the data that can be gathered based upon a particular user and where they’re located. We can use users as (a means of) crowdsourcing signal strength information so that the network administrator doesn’t have to leave their desk to understand and troubleshoot wireless issues.

ITIC: Why is it important to prevent network outages?
CL: Network outages equal application downtime. Whether the application is SaaS-based like Salesforce or NetSuite, or is an on-premises application running the data centre like Exchange, those are critical to business functions. What we’re trying to solve for is users connecting through networks to applications.

Wherever those applications might live, with NPM, we’re focused on the network portion of that connectivity. Users can’t connect to applications without the network, so if the network goes down, it affects business productivity, and in certain cases, the ability for the business to function.

You can actually tie network outages to millions of dollars lost for certain businesses, especially those that depend on the network functioning for sales to be able to access their customers and contact information, or for those who require the network in order to deliver services to customers.

ITIC: What are the future plans for NPM?
CL: Our focus is on solving for users connecting through networks to applications. But the fact is that the networks are getting more complex. Wired versus wireless is the tip of the iceberg, and we feel that there is an opportunity to bring all of these things together and solve for problem isolation and troubleshooting in a much simpler fashion.

This involves better visualization, root analysis and correlation of all the data so that network engineers don’t have to be digging around for the answer. We can provide them with a view of the incident and all of the information at their fingertips.

That’s not only the investment we made in NPM 11.5, but that, thematically, is going to be a huge focus for us, going forward. We’re bringing all the data and metrics right across the environment to the network administrators’ fingertips so that they can troubleshoot the issues faster.

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