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Supporting highly dense retail environments during the holidays

Lessons learned from the influx of network clients at stores during the holidays.

Preparing your network for reliable WiFi during the high density holiday season doesn’t have to lead to hair-pulling or long hours.

During the holidays, stores often see a vast increase in customers who are embracing great deals or trying to find that perfect gift. This increase in foot traffic inevitably leads to a spike in WiFi traffic. Customers are using mobile devices to connect with friends and family, browse online inventory, look up product reviews, and even stream videos.

When attempting to prepare their networks for the rise in usage, retailers can face numerous types of challenges. These can include setting network rules to optimize bandwidth in a BYOD environment, trying to gain visibility into in-store traffic, predicting how traffic will differ between store locations, or updating settings across multiple locations.

Luckily, creating a user friendly network environment that can stand up to the daily spikes of traffic is easier than it may seem, only requires a few minutes to configure, and can be changed remotely, at a moment’s notice.

Design your network environment

While it may be difficult to predict how many clients will connect to networks at any given time during the holidays, preparing an infrastructure can still be simple. By appropriately naming and placing APs on the dashboard map, admins can use built-in diagnostic tools in dashboard to quickly assess network utilization and performance as traffic increases.

2013 12 20 BP Map

Because Cisco Meraki APs automatically scan the RF environment, continually monitoring their surroundings to maximize WiFi performance, manual adjustments are not needed. However, paired with channel planning visualization, admins can manually tweak their networks, if needed, and instantly verify their updates for optimal wireless performance.


Create customized WiFi configurations

Once users access the network, the question arises of how to ensure that bandwidth is shared equally and used appropriately. On the Monitor > Clients page in dashboard, admins have quick visibility into device types, applications, and bandwidth usage. Enforcing per-device bandwidth limits prevents just a few clients from hogging network usage. Even with limited restrictions, like 100-200 kbps per device, user experience and bandwidth consumption are both reasonable.

Further control of guest WiFi is feasible by segmenting access on its own SSID, then shaping traffic and enforcing time-based policies. Throttling or blocking specific applications gives retailers the control to prevent devices from needlessly consuming large amounts of bandwidth or accessing unapproved content. Customizing these restrictions at different stores and setting time-based policies — like during the lunch hour when traffic peaks — is a breeze in the Cisco Meraki dashboard.

 2013 12 20 BP Scheduling


Monitor traffic and adjust as needed

When implementing new rules for guest or employee networks, it’s always best to initially err on the side of caution and be a bit more conservative. It’s always easy to become more lenient with rules later, even across numerous distributed locations.

Admins can easily monitor website activity, shopping trends, and other retail analytics using the built-in features in dashboard. With this data-rich reporting, it becomes simple to discover when peak usage occurs, which applications are most used, which subset of store visitors are repeat customers, and more. Based on the information, immediate network changes, like opening or throttling certain traffic, can be easily applied.  Admins can also view summaries of tagged networks. Gaining insight into which APs supported the most users, how much bandwidth was used for certain applications, or the top devices on the network are helpful in determining how to further augment the network.

This holiday season, the Cisco Meraki dashboard is putting the tools needed to reliably support highly dense environments at the fingertips of network admins. Even more information on creating a tailored network and managing high density environments is covered in this 3 part series.