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Tips for Managing Wireless Sensor Networks in Your Data Center

Level 11

By Paul Parker, SolarWinds Federal & National Government Chief Technologist

Here is an interesting article from my colleague, Joe Kim, in which he points out some of the challenges of managing wireless sensor networks.

For several years, government network administrators have tried to turn knowledge into action to keep their networks and data centers running optimally and efficiently. For instance, they have adopted automated network monitoring to better manage increasingly complex data centers.

Now, a new factor has entered this equation: wireless sensor networks. These networks are composed of spatially distributed, autonomous sensors that monitor physical or environmental conditions within data centers to detect conditions such as sound, temperature, or humidity levels.

However, wireless sensor networks can be extraordinarily complex, as they are capable of providing a very large amount of data. This can make it difficult for managers to get an accurate read on the type of information their connected devices are capturing, which in turn can throw into question the effectiveness of an agency’s network monitoring processes. 

Fortunately, there are several steps federal IT managers can take to help ease the burden of managing, maintaining, and improving the efficacy of their wireless sensor networks. By following these guidelines, administrators can take the knowledge they receive from their sensor arrays and make it work for their agencies.

Establish a baseline for more effective measurement and security

Before implementing wireless sensors, managers should first monitor their wireless networks to create a baseline of activity. Only with this data will teams be able to accurately determine whether or not their wireless sensor networks are delivering the desired results.

Establishing a baseline allows managers to more easily identify any changes in network activity after their sensors are deployed, which, in turn, provides a true picture of network functionality. Also, a baseline provides a reference point for potential security issues.

Set trackable metrics to monitor performance and deliver ROI

Following the baseline assessment, administrators should configure trackable metrics to help them get the most out of their wireless sensor networks. For example, bandwidth monitoring that lets managers track usage over time can help them more effectively and efficiently allocate network resources. Watching monthly usage trends can also help teams better plan for future deployments and adjust budgets accordingly.

Metrics (along with the initial baseline) also can help agencies achieve measurable results. The goal is to know specifically what is needed from devices so that teams can get the most out of their wireless sensors. With metrics in hand, managers can understand whether or not their deployments are delivering the best return on investment.

Apply appropriate network monitoring tools to keep watch over sensor arrays

Network monitoring principles should be applied to wireless sensor networks to help ensure that they continue to operate effectively and securely. For instance, network performance and bandwidth monitoring software can be effective at identifying potential network anomalies and problematic usage patterns. These and other tools can also be used to forecast device scalability and threshold alerts, allowing managers to act on the information that sensors are sending out.

These tools, along with the other strategies mentioned above, are designed to do one thing: provide knowledge that can be turned into effective action. Managers can use these practices to bridge the gap between the raw data that their sensors are providing and the steps needed to keep their networks and applications running. And there is nothing scary about that.

Find the full article on Government Computer News.

13 Comments
Level 13

Good Article

MVP
MVP

Nice article

IMHO:  Wireless is appropriate / necessary only where there are mobile workflow requirements.  A WLAN is not a replacement for a LAN, even though people have the impression that "Wireless is already present, and using it means not having to purchase cabling and switch ports."  Here are only a few reasons why a WLAN is not the right solution for data center sensors:

  • A WLAN is more expensive to install and maintain and secure than a LAN.  I have many medium and large resilient WLC's in my network of 9000+ WLAN devices, and their cost for purchase, installation, support, and licenses is far above that of the equivalent wired network management infrastructure.
  • There are no devices permanently installed in my data centers that are mobile, therefore there's no need for wireless in the data center (unless it might be for laptops being used to configure devices--and even THEY should be analyzed for whether there's a true "need" for wireless, or whether a wired switch can be provided and get the job done fast and secure and reliably).
  • Wireless is NOT secure, and will never be as secure as wired.
  • Sensors require power, meaning someone has to install cabling to provide power anyway.  That means they're not mobile.  So why not install a CAT6 cable and make their data reliable and fast and secure?
  • Wireless is subject to interference from invisible sources, which slow or stop data throughput.  Troubleshooting it is expensive and time consuming.
  • Wireless is vulnerable to hacks from outside the building.
  • Wireless is MUCH slower than wired CAT6 networks.  It's not the solution managers and administrator need in a data center.
  • Many vendors do not provide WLAN equipment with appropriate security.  Some still rely on WEP!  Using older protocols (WPA) opens more vulnerabilities and gaping holes in your security.  Is that what you want in your data center, simply for convenience?  I don't think so.
  • A WLAN has more connection limitations than a LAN.  AP's have limited memory and CPU capabilities that are lower than the capacity of switches.  They represent the camel that's getting more and more straw piled on its back.  Limiting the amount of devices using wireless results in better performance for all other devices that are determined to actually NEED to use wireless due to their mobility requirements and criticality.
  • Every new SSID installed, every new AP, means more work for every end device to do as it tries to sort out the best AP for it to connect to.  Beacons from more AP's and more SSID's can overwhelm a WLAN's environment, and the only solution to that is fewer AP's, fewer SSID's, and fewer Wireless clients.

Yes, wireless is convenient.  It's also VERY expensive to install, secure, maintain, and troubleshoot.  Be informed and be able to explain to users why wireless is not appropriate in a data center.  Know these facts may help you help your users why wireless may be inappropriate in MANY places.

Level 20

IPv6 only makes it even more strange to me now that everything is going to have an IP address o.O!

MVP
MVP

Generally speaking a wireless network is more expensive than wired, but not always.

  • Get a good set of floorplans for every location, floor, building etc.
  • Make sure you have an accurate site survey (using a specific Survey SSID - AP on a stick sort of thing) with the product you are planning to purchase
  • Set a baseline for performance expectations and survey-the-design to those specifications
  • Use a good onboarding/enrollmant product
  • (As an example - we had a wireless product - I won't name names, but the name sounds like a tropical Island and we replaced it with a product that has a dog mascot and a name like a honda motorcycle. The product A had 200 access points in the hospital alone after vendor of product A did their survey we were told that we needed 300 APs to cover the hospital with the specs that we required. Vendor R came along and did a proper survey using products from vendor R and found that they could do the entire area with 90 APs but we used 100 for a little extra redundancy. The new product can both send and receive at much better distances. The proper survey gave a more accurate result)
  • In our case the wiring vendor (not a lot of choices around here) gets an average of close to $1000 per drop for wire - more than the cost of an AP that can handle hundreds of clients at a time (yes, that is accurate, I don't even get concerned with these APs until I see more than 200 connections on a radio - they are all dual radio)

Wireless is not as secure as wired, but I wouldn't call it insecure either. With proper onboarding, firewalling and monitoring it manageable. (Again, baseline requirements and don't allow insecure protocols)

I do agree that wireless is vulnerable to attacks from outside the building and that's hard to mitigate. (as a side note a terms and services page doesn't prevent bad people from doing bad thing (or good people from doing not so smart things) but it does help protect your entity from prosecution of such things - ALWAYS have a terms and services for all of your networks)

I also agree that APs can only handle so much of a load - with Vendor A we had APs that couldn't handle a dozen active connections and if you had 35 people just connected but less active - i.e. phones, email, and such that AP would get very very unhappy. With Vendor R I've used their products in conferences with hundreds of active users and it is rock solid. So, do your homework.

I also agree that multiple SSIDs create additional problems - keep the SSIDs to a minimum, preferably 4 or fewer.

In our case wireless is less expensive for our use and though not as fast, the speed has not been an issue with any of our users (after switching to R). Troubleshooting is a little harder, but between the R dashboard, the CP onboarding, SolarWinds monitoring, E for mapping and WLAN noise/interference troubleshooting, we find the wireless to be a great asset in our environment.

Level 16

Wow, now that's an expensive ethernet drop!

Don't fall victim to the IoT assumption that every device that CAN have an IP address (even IPv6) SHOULD have a network connection.

Wireless isn't going away, but it isn't going to get better if folks don't say "no to poorly secured IoT solutions."

MVP
MVP

Yes and the other guy in town is only a bit cheaper and his work is considerably less reliable - as in sometimes things aren't labeled, sometimes they are and sometimes the labels even match the wiring. One time we use "the other guy" and asked for shielded cable - which he ran, but none of the connectors on the ends were shielded so . . .

MVP
MVP

Totally agree - unfortunately we have a lot of people with that mentality and so there's all kinds of "things" on our network. And on the wireless front we have desktop PCs in some areas, sitting right next to a wall outlet, with a wireless card being utilized. And there are a number of people with laptops set to work on the wireless - yet they never, ever leave their docks. Kind of the rule is if the user wants it they get it.

Did I say something, somewhere about management?

MVP
MVP

Wireless is a convenience.

Convenience is and will always be a compromise.

What is compromised will vary on various factors.

I wouldn't be popular in that environment.  I patiently explain why doing it right trumps doing it conveniently, why doing it wrong costs more than doing it right.  And I remind folks that there's ALWAYS time to do things the right way.  Then I outline the plan to remediate the problems and begin correcting them.

Hand-in-hand comes a policy that defines what's acceptable and what's not, and it details why the decisions were made.  That gives you the power to say "no" to poor assumptions based on insufficient knowledge.  It let's you say "no" to bad security practices.  It helps users understand why you said "no" to wireless devices that have no mobility requirements.

Yes, I wouldn't be popular there.  But the network would be more secure, operate more reliably, and be much faster.

And costs would decrease while productivity increased.  It would take a while for griping to go down, but convenience does trump security, speed, reliability, and cost.

Level 16

Yep you always run into that. We are lucky enough to have some pretty good contractors in the area I work in.

MVP
MVP

I agree, but those decisions are made above me and I tell those that take it up the ladder and they choose to do what is being done.

About the Author
Paul Parker, a 25-year information technology industry veteran, and expert in Government. He leads SolarWinds’ efforts to help public sector customers manage the security and performance of their systems by using technology. Parker most recently served as vice president of engineering at Infoblox‘s federal division. Before that, he served in C-level or senior management positions at Ward Solutions, Eagle Alliance and Dynamics Research Corp.