How to wring money out of thin air

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This article appeared in the August 2014 issue of CRN magazine.

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How to wring money out of thin air

Think about the pressures on the average business. No need to spec a server five years out to buy the right size today, just dial up a bigger virtual machine in the cloud. The stream of hard drives required to run a business is slowing thanks to near-free online storage. Cloud software will work on pretty much any device that can run a browser. 

However, there’s one area that’s become a bigger headache as a result. Any reseller who can confidently solve this bugbear for their customers will win gratitude, respect and a profitable support retainer. What is it? Wireless networking.

Wireless networks are now as ubiquitous as the mobile devices they power. Sitting here in my ground floor apartment, I can count 10 wireless networks from neighbours above and in the towers beside me. In my fourth-floor suburban office, there are close to 20. 

Consider the difficulties in setting up a wireless network. Each one must fight for enough space to transmit scanned contracts, local news stories, the weekend’s football highlights, video conferences and a constant barrage of email. And that’s just in a single office.

Cloud computing has exacerbated the problem by heavily increasing the amount of traffic over the local connection. Forget saving to your local hard drive. Each Skype call, document saved to Dropbox and Google Hangout with your colleague must first go over the LAN or WAN before hitting the external connection up to some massive data centre in Sydney, Singapore or beyond.

Add to this a cacophony of mobile devices – many people these days have at least two – all updating their operating systems, mobile apps and associated data every couple of minutes.

One of the biggest challenges is managing backups. If all your laptops and desktops in a business instantly save all file changes directly to Google Drive or Microsoft One Drive or Box or Dropbox, how often should they save to a local NAS for fast system restores?

The worst part about a wireless network is that when you think something is wrong with the speed of your connection you have absolutely no way of telling if there is a problem in the first place (maybe the website is loading slowly) or where in the chain it might exist.

Business owners are looking for someone who can give them confidence that their wireless network is operating at its maximum capacity, and when it fails that the problem can be identified and quickly resolved.

The reality is that most SMEs have DIY wireless networks cobbled together with access points and routers from different vendors operating on different frequencies with basic security and little monitoring. The wireless network is a black box for which the only troubleshooting is to reset the flipping router.

What do SMEs most want from their wireless networks? The most popular requests include knowing who is connected to it and how much data they have downloaded, says Kris Hansen, technology manager for GFI, a company which sells vendor-agnostic network monitoring and security software. The third most common request is signal strength. “No one calls us up for this but as soon as they see it they want to know more,” Hansen says.

There are some really nice services that tie into wireless networking for SMEs. Mobile device management is a great example. Affordable wireless security that’s easy to manage. You could even upsell business-grade DSL broadband connections and IP telephony.

But it all starts with signal strength and a quality connection. If you can reset an access point over the phone to reduce lag on the CEO’s fix of Saturday Night Live, you’ll be a hero to everyone in the office.

Sholto Macpherson is a journalist and commentator who covers emerging technology in cloud

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