Recently the help desk at a UK steel fabricating and engineering company was flooded with support tickets. Users complained of getting disconnected and losing data for no specific reason. The network administrator, new to the job, was well aware that the number of wireless devices attached to the network through wireless routers might very well be dragging down network performance, introducing latency issues.

After all, it wasn’t uncommon for users to download video clips or subscribe to streaming music services which could slow or interrupt user access to business applications. By the time the administrator started looking at wireless routers, the problem was gone, and he couldn’t replicate it. Finding the cause after the fact was like finding a needle in a haystack.

Wireless’ significant impact

Wireless devices can have a significant impact on today’s IT organisations, especially those that have skimped on planning around BYOD implementation. The resulting chaos can be a costly drain on IT staff and infrastructure resources.

This case went unsolved until two weeks later when the administrator finally identified the person downloading complete films from the office with the intention of watching them after work. A quiet word and the problem was solved.

But BYOD remains a thorny problem for many companies where there is a doubling or tripling of the number of devices connected to a company network. When developing a strategy or rethinking an existing implementation, IT managers need to consider:

  • Total cost: Many organisations look at BYOD as a cost-saving alternative to buying PCs and notebooks for their users, only to realise that the cost of supporting these devices soon exceeds the expected savings.
  • Security: Policies and procedures need to be implemented to ensure that BYODs are properly secured to protect critical IT assets and sensitive data.
  • Network availability and performance: Most BYODs access the network through a wireless router. Notebooks, iPads and smart phones don’t just increase density of the user population you’re responsible for. They can also create bandwidth consumption overloads that threaten user access to legitimate company or organizational computing resources.

Since it’s too late for you to close the door on BYOD (and would you want to anyway?), there are some best practices you can apply to introduce and support BYODs while maintaining optimal network and application availability.

Create a benchmark for wireless access

Before overhauling the entire office network, it’s best to start by creating a benchmark of exactly who is bringing what devices onto the network, how many devices each user is likely to use, and what the users of these devices are accessing. Gaining an understanding of the impact BYODs have on wireless bandwidth will help you map out network design changes needed to accommodate more devices – and you can be sure they will increase in number.

Ask these three questions:

  • What are the most common applications and websites that employees are accessing via wireless devices? Are they primarily for business or personal use?
  • Who or what are the top consumers of wireless bandwidth in terms of individuals, devices and applications?
  • How are BYODs moving through the corporate wireless network, and how does this impact access point availability and performance, even security?

This initial benchmark will reveal gaps in your networking strategy that a wireless policy must address, convey the magnitude of the BYOD effect on IT performance, and serve as a measuring stick for future improvements.

Develop data-driven BYOD policies

Consider the last meeting you attended, and multiply the number of people in the room by the likely three devices they carry. The bandwidth they consume can divert computing efforts from business-critical applications and corporate email. The resulting over-subscribed access point impacts everyone, including employees outside the meeting trying to work via wireless who can’t connect to the server.

Will the wireless network be able to handle this increased density and traffic? It can if you have an accurate benchmark of wireless usage and behaviour. With it, an organisation can establish BYOD usage policies that enable IT to support users with multiple devices, while maintaining acceptable wireless availability and performance. An effective BYOD policy should address the following:

  • Who: BYOD usage should be limited to those who need extra devices to do their jobs.
  • Devices: It’s common for users to carry three or four devices into the workplace, significantly increasing density on the wireless network. BYOD policies should define the acceptable number and type of devices by job function.
  • Bandwidth: With an increased number of devices, IT will be challenged to keep up with the wireless bandwidth demand. BYOD policies need to define authorised applications and acceptable bandwidth consumption by user and device.

Ideally you can back that up with network monitoring tools that can be configured to automatically reject access to sites or services that have nothing to do with completing work activities. Rethink your network’s design. Odds are that an organisation’s network design, infrastructure and IT policy have not kept pace with employees’ growing reliance on wireless technology.

BYOD goes from convenience to critical

When companies first rolled out wireless networks, they were a convenience offering for users who required network connectivity as they moved throughout the building. Fast forward several years and wireless networks are becoming the primary user network infrastructure for many companies.

According to a 2011 statement by Paul DeBeasi, research VP at Gartner Group, 80% of newly installed wireless networks will be obsolete by 2014 because of a lack of proper planning. That means that now is the time to start planning to accommodate wireless users before they overwhelm your network. Assume they’re currently using an access point designed originally for one-third or less of that traffic and plan from there. The bottom line is that employees’ mobile behaviour will continue to evolve, but it’s never too late to evaluate or create new wireless policies.