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Real-time collaboration and modern work environments require people to be mobile and untethered from their traditional desktops. Our employees expect a seamless wireless experience across multiple devices, starting with ease of connecting to our network and freedom of movement while they are online. In addition, guests at Microsoft facilities for sales, training, or demonstrations expect a seamless wireless connection and fast, reliable internet connectivity. Coverage and capacity are essential, as modern workforces push more bandwidth over the wireless spectrum and a saturated network results in the same frustrations as having no wireless capability at all.
Microsoft IT’s Wireless Journey
When speaking, and working, with peers in other enterprises, a common strategy that emerges is “Wi- Fi first” wherein Wi-Fi becomes the primary access method for user connectivity. Within Microsoft, our IT environment experienced the same shift, informally at first as employees shifted from desktops to laptops and tablets. At the same time, our employees maintained administrative rights and flexibility in their device choices, which presents unique benefits and challenges. For our IT team, this case presented a challenge because the connectivity demands moved to wireless before we in IT fully understood the scope of how our operating models and designs needed to evolve.
Coverage and capacity are essential, as modern workforces push more bandwidth over the wireless spectrum
Today, we are in a great position because of focused efforts on design, operations and relationships with other groups in Microsoft. Hopefully, other organizations that are on a similar journey can adapt some of these learning to match their own environments and cultures.
• Improved RF design: Modern office designs require changes to established RF design guidelines to accommodate layouts with high user density and large conference rooms. Ensuring access point placement in proper locations with enough capacity and appropriate power levels wasn’t a new practice; however, it was essential to improve rigor here as we removed fixed network capacity. Additionally, as our employees changed behaviors, our processes for continual RF surveys to ensure optimal experience enabled us to stay in front of issues.
• Real time application usage: Quality of service (QoS) is critical for voice and video applications running well over the enterprise network. In addition to proper RF design and configuration settings, deploying the proper QoS markings and prioritization of critical business applications over Wi-Fi significantly improved our user experience. In many ways, unified communications services are the harshest critic of network performance. By collaborating with the teams that manage those services for Microsoft employees, we improved network performance for a range of scenarios, beyond those specific to the wireless network.
• Management and monitoring: WLAN management frameworks were in place to ensure infrastructure stayed current on code and configuration known to work in our environment. One of the outcomes of the work we did with the unified communications teams was to get even more rigorous regarding what code and configurations would be certified, and the processes used for that certification.
• Client drivers: Just as in fixed networks, WLAN is an ecosystem of Wi-Fi infrastructure and the devices that connect to it. As such, we learned it is important to ensure Wi-Fi device drivers stay current and run on latest hardware to leverage the newest technology standards. To this extent, we established a Wi-Fi client connectivity program that focuses on enabling our users to run IT-approved hardware and certified Wi-Fi drivers easily.
Microsoft uses a multi-vendor infrastructure because of supplier strategy, regional availability and company mergers and acquisitions. This situation certainly creates challenges such as code compliance and configuration management in managing our large global footprint. We are still evolving in this space and our organizational processes of agile and DevOps for infrastructure helps address some of the gaps and respond to changes rapidly.
Key partnership with our real estate and facilities teams who perform space planning and develop new workplace strategies, such as open office layouts, are critical in ensuring proper RF design and AP placement. Many factors affect radio frequency spectrum health, thus our wireless designs need to be part of the building designs. Addressing major architectural elements of design, such as large open atriums, materials choices, etc. helped us create a solid foundation for the network.
Today, as wireless technologies have improved beyond 802.11n, the workloads that still require fixed networks are rare. The costs of upgrading our wireless infrastructure are significant, but cost recovery from reduction in fixed networking will have a net positive impact on the IT budget. There was a great deal of savings for us as across maintenance for wired network equipment and the elimination of technical debt related to the existing wireless infrastructure. While the financial incentives are variable for each environment, industry peers have indicated savings of 20 percent to 70 percent over three years, and Microsoft’s experience reflects that as well.
There is complexity in designing, deploying and managing the wireless network that isn’t required in the wired world. As we emerge from running parallel infrastructures, I’m certain that customers and suppliers will develop management protocols and processes that don’t exist today and will need to be incorporated into our operating models. Even with these challenges, the benefits for workspace design, employee productivity and IT budgets is clearly in favor of the wireless-first network.