The Great Return to the Office is coming. Maybe. Hybrid work is here to stay. Perhaps. Remote learning brings equality to education. Hopefully. Regardless, one aspect is certain: the way we work and learn will be constantly changing and technology will have to adapt to support collaborative experiences.
According to a recent article on hybrid work in the New York Times: “A look at the New York work force, from a November survey of 188 major employers, showed that 8 percent of Manhattan office workers are back in the office full time, 54 percent are fully remote and everyone else — nearly 40 percent — is hybrid.” What does that mix of work styles mean for achieving inclusiveness with collaborative applications? One virtual real estate company, highlighted in the article, created a policy that if even one member of a team was remote, everyone had to use a collaborative video service for a meeting.
Students—practically born with a computing device in their hands—are technologically savvy and have high expectations for application performance. In the midst of distance learning and testing, they are hyper critical and vocal about network performance issues. The blame game has moved from “the dog ate my homework” to “the app was too slow, the lecture video kept breaking up”.
The key takeaway here is that video-augmented collaboration is now pervasive and the network will have to support a high applications experience around the campus and beyond. Collaboration applications are rapidly becoming the most critical application type for successfully re-engaging the workforce and students as they return to campuses, connect from home, or work in transit. And as the proposed “Meta” worlds to come to fruition, there will be even greater demand for integrated experiences through augmented and virtual reality, creating ever higher demand for more bandwidth and even lower latency networks.
As documented in the Cisco Hybrid Work Index, devices connecting to office-based Wi-Fi networks have already increased 61% in comparison to six months ago, led by higher education, professional services, and hospitality. To support a truly mobile workforce, most of the required high-quality connectivity will be delivered wirelessly though Wi-Fi 6—and in the near future Wi-Fi 6E—with integrations to cellular networks using open roaming capabilities. With the distribution of workforces and students in flux more than ever, successfully implementing the necessary changes for a video-first digital campus most often falls on the shoulders of the technical elite—the IT teams building and supporting the networks that make all the interconnected pieces “just work”.
In this blog post, I’ll explore how Cisco helps IT teams successfully support the next phase of collaborative workplaces.
Reimagining The Wireless Workplace for Collaboration
In wireless environments, the experience of workforce and students varies by individual, depending on location in relationship to access points (APs), device types in use, and application bandwidth and latency requirements. Imagine a student walking through a campus with an iPhone on the way to a lecture. She checks the schedule and location, a simple application for a wireless network to handle. But then she realizes the lecture is already starting. Fortunately, the lecture is being simulcast on WebEx, so she can simply join the video stream while walking to the lecture hall. Cisco Fastlane+, built into Cisco Catalyst 9100 APs, automatically enables iPhone and iPad devices to send an Advanced Scheduling Request (ASR) trigger to APs, which in turn set up connections that support latency-sensitive applications such as WebEx, FaceTime, and other collaborative apps. The iPhone takes full advantage of Fastlane+ to prioritize the streaming WebEx traffic as students traverse the campus from AP to AP, maintaining the appropriate connection for bandwidth and latency to provide clear and consistent audio and video.
Because voice and video traffic typically have predictable bit rates, traffic patterns, bandwidth, and latency requirements, Fastlane+ enables the network to estimate a client’s demand and proactively schedule airtime on APs. The result is mutual optimization for both devices and network to produce the best application experience.
Performance Management Tools Assist NetOps to Optimize the Network for Critical Apps
Performance of next-gen video and collaboration applications will depend on upgrading the wireless network with Wi-Fi 6, and ultimately 6E, access points as needed to accommodate new use cases. AIOps provides the insights into network usage and helps NetOps determine the least-used time windows which can assist in planning for the best times for infrastructure upgrades. Combined with technologies like In-Service Software Upgrade (ISSU) and Rolling Access Point upgrades, this guarantees the completion of upgrades with minimal downtime.
Applications that are critical to supporting business and learning outcomes need to be classified, marked, and treated according to industry best-practice recommendations for relevant (collab video, SaaS apps), default (email, messaging), and irrelevant (social, shopping sites) traffic. Doing so enables IT to consistently track KPIs like latency, jitter, and packet drops for each type of application to understand how they are behaving and build the required infrastructure to support each of them according to their needs for optimal performance.
Sometimes, latency and jitter can be caused by the underlying legacy protocols in use. The the Wi-Fi 6 Readiness Dashboard in Cisco DNA Center provides insights on how migrating to a new Wi-Fi 6 protocol could improve network performance. The dashboard verifies existing hardware configurations for upgrade readiness and capacity planning. That knowledge speeds the upgrade process by enabling IT to focus on locations that are critical to application performance and workforce productivity. After upgrading, advanced wireless analytics monitor and report on performance and capacity gains resulting from the Wi-Fi 6 deployment to help justify additional investments.
While the AIOps dashboards show the overall network performance, Wi-Fi might be more nuanced, as the site survey and planning done during installation may not remain accurate. Cisco DNA Center’s Wireless 3D Analyzer provides in-depth methods to verify, validate, and troubleshoot with a real-time and immersive 3-D visual view. The Wi-Fi Coverage Heatmaps track hourly performance of selected KPIs throughout the day, providing visibility to isolate issues and perform root cause analysis.
The Baselines Dashboard helps improve workforce experience by improving visibility into Wi-Fi onboarding KPIs across buildings and SSIDs. Cisco DNA Center also employs a “heartbeat” algorithm to continually monitor the state of IP Address Management services and raises appropriate alarms when a failure is detected. It also provides continuous monitoring of critical IPAM address management systems to ensure minimal downtime and faster mitigation of outages.
AI Network Assurance Keeps Collaborative Video Applications Performing
If there is another device as ubiquitous as smart phones on campus, it’s the laptop—the universal compute aid for getting stuff done. Yet the variety of brands and components provides yet another challenge for IT. When connectivity affects application performance on a laptop, what is the root cause? Is the problem with the laptop Wi-Fi, authentication services, interference, or the campus APs?
By automating discovery and detection services, IT can spend more time on focus on the most relevant areas for troubleshooting—from individual devices with outdated drivers to applications experiencing connection issues with their various microservices. For example, students typically bring their own laptops to campus, but those are not managed by IT through mobile device management software as is typical in enterprise settings. That means that vendor-specific information such as Wi-Fi driver versions, which can be a factor in a poor application experience, is not available to network administrators. Cisco Intel Connectivity Analytics discovers and detects driver compatibility issues for Intel-based Wi-Fi 6/6E chipset clients, which eliminates much of the guesswork for NetOps when narrowing down connectivity issues.
To monitor and fine tune video connections over the wireless campus, IT can use discovery and detect services with Cisco DNA Center Assurance with three views:
- WebEx 360 in the WebEx Service Dashboard
- Client 360 for client-specific video experience
- Site 360 for location-specific video experience
The Assurance dashboards can show six months of application experience analytics spanning all sites to give IT a historical view of performance and clues as to what has recently changed. Did video performance suddenly degrade after a newly finished construction project in a building? Which floor or building has the worst application experience? Do the floors hosting recruiters—who depend on clear video for interviews and screen sharing—need an upgrade to Wi-Fi 6? Like, Right Now?
In a complex wireless campus environment, there are a lot of issues to detect and notify—many minor, a few (hopefully) needing instant attention, and others that can be used for future planning. The goal is to ignore the noise and get to the signal to minimize the Mean Time to Detect (aka Mean Time to Blame) the root causes. Dynamic baselining uses AI and ML to analyze the massive amounts of telemetry produced by controllers and access points to reduce the noise and false positives so IT can focus on pinpointing the urgent issues affecting application experience.
The more telemetry the analytics can draw on, the better the outcomes for resolving issues with the minimum number of steps. To find the needles in the proverbial haystack, Cisco has developed one of the largest network data lakes using anonymized customer telemetry and decades of internally developed knowledgebases. Alerts sent to IT teams are ranked in terms of priority, followed by the root causes and the steps taken to reach a solution. With proactive solutions suggested by Cisco DNA Center AI, IT can prevent issues from affecting application experience and focus on fine tuning the network for optimal performance.
Meeting the Application Experience Challenge Today
Cisco’s commitment to building an inclusive future for all is predicated on the premise of enabling IT organizations to connect, secure, and automate their workplace, workforce, and workloads. The unified Cisco Access Infrastructure, from Catalyst Wireless Controllers and Access Points to AI Analytics in Cisco DNA Center, provide IT with the technology to build, operate, and maintain wireless campus networks that provide best application experience for the workforce and students.
For additional information on Wi-Fi 6 and application experience, visit:
Intel Connectivity Analytics FAQ for Catalyst Wireless LAN Controller