Medical 864465280

Designing and Maintaining Optimized Networks for Dynamic Wi-Fi Environments

May 28, 2020
As hospitals and other healthcare facilities deal with current COVID-19 patients and prepare for future cases, the need for a reliable, strong, and effective wireless networks is more apparent than ever.

Designing for healthcare isn’t exactly like designing for any other industry. Hospitals, clinics, nursing homes, and other facilities have a few unique requirements that must be considered:

  • Interference: Concrete walls, lead rooms, and medical equipment like MRI machines will all cause Wi-Fi interference.
  • Building layout: Multiple floors and buildings can make for a challenging design process. There can be no dead spots, so the handoff between access points (APs) must be seamless.
  • Mobility: Not only will patients and providers be moving throughout a facility, many facilities, especially larger ones, use mobile workstations (often called “Computer on Wheels” or COWs) and portable medical equipment. Such devices are often tracked using real-time location systems (RTLS) that rely on robust network infrastructure.
  • Varying user demands: Hospital networks’ first priority is to support life-saving medical devices and applications, but there will also be high demand from patients and guests using the network for personal reasons.

Above all, the network must support optimal patient care.

The network must be designed for high availability, night and day, year-round. At a minimum, this means including enough APs to support high usage with no dead zones. It might also mean utilizing secondary sources such as Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) beacons to support RTLS used to track mobile workstations, medical providers, and patients. Opt for a centralized design with a single network infrastructure to improve performance and uptime. The goal is a design that affords better access to clinical data whenever it’s needed—think less hierarchical and more flattened.

Facilities can consider where it makes sense to integrate wired technology into the network design to free up wireless capacity for wireless-only devices. For example, patient rooms can have wired televisions and analog phones, and reception desks can use wired computers.

Finally, design the network with future flexibility in mind. Building in 30%-40% excess capacity gives the network room to grow over the next few years. As thousands of wireless medical devices hit the market every year, this ensures the network is prepared to handle an evolving RF environment.

Bringing Order to the Wi-Fi Ecosystem

Organization is the watchword for networks supporting such a vast array of uses and users. When an existing building is to be outfitted with multiple, physically separate networks, plan to consolidate into one infrastructure if possible. Working with a centralized network operations system simplifies Wi-Fi network management by improving visibility.

While it’s common practice to segment wired networks via virtual LANs (VLANs), the whole concept falls apart when it comes to wireless networks. On wireless LANs (WLANs), multicast and broadcast traffic are treated equally and can become the cause of extraneous airtime utilization. Most Wi-Fi networks will send multicast/broadcast traffic at the lowest data rates to guarantee delivery to the farthest clients, thus leading to higher airtime utilization.

Devote special attention to limiting the amount of such traffic. For example, use smaller subnets, increase multicast data rates, use multicast DNS (mDNS) gateways, enable dynamic multicast optimization methods, and so on. The solution(s) can vary depending on your WLAN vendor.   

Security and Privacy

Security is a critical part of any healthcare network design, especially with so many ransomware attacks targeting hospitals and bring-your-own-device (BYOD) policies allowing even more personal devices on the network. Integrate security into network infrastructure with network access controls and an intrusion detection and prevention (IDP) solution to monitor access and ensure that only authorized users are on the network.

Separate networks and bandwidth limits should be utilized to provide security and ensure strong performance for medical devices first and foremost. More often than not, three networks will be sufficient for a facility’s needs, but some facilities may choose to implement four:

  • SSID 1: Secured with WPA2 (or the newer WPA3), this network is for facility employees only. It must ensure that all patient-confidential information is protected, following security regulations such as HIPAA and PCI.
  • SSID 2: This is the guest network for patients and visitors, which may also be secured with a password.
  • SSID 3: This is a “catch-all” network for hospital devices that may not support advanced security protocols such as WPA2; many IoT devices will fall into this category.
  • SSID 4: Although not essential, this network may be used specifically for Voice over Wi-Fi (VoWi-Fi). If facilities decide to implement SSID 4, it must be as securely encrypted as SSID 1, while keeping in mind the security protocols supported by the VoWi-Fi devices.

Maintaining a Network—Working Easier, Not Harder

As challenging as healthcare network design can be, the need to maintain an optimized network day and night over decades only compounds the challenges. To make this process easier, facilities can work with an AI-based management solution that provides 100% visibility, proactive insights and alerts, and remote access.

Healthcare facilities provide a challenging RF environment. There are many connected hallways, shielded radiology departments, and sometimes several connected smaller buildings and centers, each of which may have switches, routers, and APs from different vendors. Achieving constant and complete visibility into this environment, including the thousands of supported client devices, is a critical first step in maintaining a reliable network.

An AI-based solution that provides a centralized control platform for capturing and processing analytics gives IT a detailed look into the entire ecosystem from one user interface. Depending on the solution, it might identify every connected device, backend and frontend infrastructure, and nearby networks. With these in-depth analytics, IT can determine exactly what the network is tasked with supporting, how each device and application behaves under normal and high-stress conditions, and how the network is affected when new devices and applications are connected.

Not only does complete visibility make it easier to monitor network health and performance, it also supports IT in the quick discovery and resolution of network issues, as well as future capacity planning.

In healthcare settings, any network downtime or disruption must be avoided. The network must be available 99.999% of the time. The best way to ensure that availability is with automated, proactive alerts.

With complete visibility, AI solutions can determine healthy, baseline network behavior. If this behavior changes for any reason, the solution can alert IT with specifics such as the root cause of the change and actionable insights. This supports IT in quickly resolving the issue before it affects users, greatly improving the mean-time-to-resolution (MTTR).

Included in this management capability are network tests and historical analytics. Historical analytics are useful both in the short and long terms. They provide observational insights into network usage and growth over days, weeks, and months; and key analytics for capacity planning. Historical analytics are a key element in efforts to maintain an optimized network into the future.

Scheduled, consistent network tests are an effective means of monitoring a network in real time and to receive instant notification of any issues. With thousands of devices and applications to monitor, as well as other business-critical responsibilities, IT often lacks the bandwidth to run tests manually. IT staff should be supported with an automated solution that simulates the end-user experience, provides in-depth analytics, and frees up IT resources for other tasks.

In a time when travel is difficult or impossible, remote access is a mission-critical capability. Even when travel is easy, remote access reduces the MTTR and makes it possible to deliver faster troubleshooting to even small, remote facilities.

As healthcare facilities often operate 24/7, it can be difficult to determine the best time to plan scheduled maintenance, let alone address issues that can arise at any time of the day or night. The more opportunities that IT teams have to access the network remotely, the easier it can be to keep the entire network running smoothly.

Network Optimization

While the wired network is important to maintain back-end connectivity, the end users (healthcare providers, staff, and patients) are mostly on-the-go. They rely more on the wireless network to get their jobs done. Hence, the wireless network is the backbone of a healthcare facility. Users depend on the wireless network for life-saving resources as well as for updated care management.

Increased mobility, real-time alerts, and improved care coordination are only a few of the benefits that result from having an optimized wireless network. Focus on an integrated network design and AI-based maintenance plan that will support patient care now and into the future.

Anil Gupta is CTO and Co-Founder of Wyebot.

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