Wednesday, 24 April 2013

How Do I "Get Into" WiFi?

I've been thinking about writing this article for a while and today I came across some articles and Tweets which finally spurred me in to action (see references at the end of this article). In this article I discuss the CWNP program, with particular emphasis on the CWTS certification, for those wishing to learn about WiFi networking.

I meet a lot of people in my line of work (IT professionals in the main) who would like to improve their knowledge of WiFi networking, or would perhaps even like to shift their area of expertise to become focused in this area. However, the question often arises: "how do I get into WiFi networking". 

If you're an IT professional who already has one or two areas of expertise (maybe you're already a security, routing or perhaps voice specialist?) perhaps you would like to understand WiFi networking, as it will doubtless touch your core area of focus during your day-to-day networking life. Or, perhaps you'd just like to be able to understand that consultant who turns up on site and starts speaking at you with a constant stream of WiFi jargon. Whichever is it, you probably recognise that in addition to maintaining your core skills, you need to acquire a basic grasp of the fundamentals of other technology areas. Knowing where to start can sometimes be a little over-whelming.

Similarly if you are an IT professional who recognises the current explosion in the mobility space, you might feel it's time for a change and time to get "a piece of the action" by switching your core skills to become a WiFi specialist.

Whatever your starting point, it's often difficult to know where to start and, more importantly, where to invest your precious time and money to gain the maximum "bang for your buck" (excuse the quotes, I'm British and not used to these American, but universally accepted, colloquialisms).  

Unless you have a generous employer who is going to invest time and money in sending you on a number of  WiFi training courses, then you are going to have to look at strategies for expanding your knowledge yourself. This generally means self-study.

You might consider looking at one of the popular vendor-sponsored certification programs. For example, Cisco provide the CCNA wireless certification which you can self-study for using their study guide. However, vendor programs, such as CCNA, tend to focus a lot on product-related information and perhaps skimp a little on the technical depth that you might hope for (note: you also need to have passed the basic CCNA R&S exam as a pre-requisite to the CCNA Wireless exam) . In my opinion, the key to mastering a technology area is to have a solid foundation rooted in a good understanding of the general theory and principles of the whole subject-area - the vendor-specific stuff can follow on later once you understand how the technology should work.

My own personal preference for self-study and a professional WiFi certification path is the vendor-neutral CWNP program. It has a range of study guides and certification exams ranging from entry level (CWTS) right up to industry guru status (CWNE). The quality of their material and the standard of the exams is exemplary. Even if you aren't going to take the exams, the wealth of WiFi knowledge in their study guides is staggering and a valuable resource to have on your bookshelf.

I personally started my own certification journey in WiFi with the CWNA (Certified Wireless Network Administrator) exam a few years ago, which is the second level of certification (one level above their entry level exam). However, the CWNA is a very challenging exam - it's definitely not for WiFi beginners (in my opinion). But, CWNP also provide an entry level exam for those who are at the beginning of their WiFi journey : CWTS (Certified Wireless Technology Specialist). Although this is an entry level exam, don't be fooled, it still covers a lot of ground and provides a wealth of information to provide a solid understanding of WiFi basics.

I hadn't looked at the CWTS in any detail myself until fairly recently - I guess I'd rather unfairly dismissed it in my mind as a bit of a low-level qualification. But I recently got involved with helping some colleagues start their certification journey and had a proper look at what the CWTS has to offer - I was very impressed!

I got hold of a copy of the CWTS guide from Amazon on my Kindle. It weighs in at a thumping 541 pages! A lightweight entry level qualification!!?? - I don't think so. In summary, the study guide follows the objectives of the CWTS exam and give you a comprehensive, detailed introduction in to the world of WiFi. Here are the chapter titles to give you a flavour of what you will find in the study guide:

  • Ch1 - Introduction to Computer Networking
  • Ch2 - Introduction to Wireless Local Area Networking
  • Ch3 - Wireless LAN Infrastructure Devices
  • Ch4 - Wireless LAN Client Devices
  • Ch5 - Physical Layer Access Methods
  • Ch6 - Radio Frequency Fundamentals
  • Ch7 - Wireless LAN Antennas and Accessories
  • Ch8 - Wireless LAN Terminology & Technology
  • Ch9 - Wireless LAN Security Basics
  • Ch10 - Wireless Lan Site Survey
  • Ch11 - Performing an RF Wireless LAN Site Survey
  • Ch12 - Troubleshooting and Maintaining IEEE 802.11 Wireless Local Area Networks
In additional, you also get to to download an accompanying CD which has plenty of practice questions for you to hone your skills for the exam (if you should choose to do it).

In summary, my recommendation for getting your feet wet in WiFi is to do yourself a massive favour and get hold of the CWTS study guide. It will provide you a thorough (vendor-neutral) grounding in  WiFi networking and will provide you with the first step on an industry recognised (and well-respected) certification program. I personally think that the study guide is very well written and perfectly suited for the IT professional, or perhaps student, who already has some networking skills that they wish to expand.

Don't forget that it isn't all just about reading though. You can also have have some fun with WiFi yourself for very little outlay. Although Enterprise-grade WiFi gear can be a little expensive, you can perhaps play with your own home WiFi router, maybe re-flash an old Linksys home router or even pick up a bargain on eBay - there's no substitute for getting your hands on some gear whilst you study.

There are also some great free software packages you can get hold of to help you with your studies. You might like to take a look at:
I hope this gives you a few ideas to get you started on your journey in expanding your knowledge in WiFi networking. Good luck! Let me know how you get on :)