With Wi-Fi now the primary network access method for many business workers, the improved capacity and performance of the 802.11ac wireless standard is just what's needed today.
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The 802.11ac wireless standard is really more evolutionary than revolutionary, but it represents a direction with quantifiable benefits that are valuable enough for 802.11ac to constitute the core strategic WLAN direction for just about every enterprise going forward. 802.11ac is that important -- and now it's here. Any thoughts of putting off deployment should be dismissed by the end of this article.
802.11ac or 802.11n: What's the difference?
Consider that enterprise-class 802.11ac access points essentially cost the same as their 802.11n predecessors, meaning that 802.11ac provides an immediate boost to the price/performance ratio. 802.11ac also gets better performance than 802.11n through a combination of improved modulation, which offers more bits on the air per units of frequency and time; beamforming, or the ability to focus transmitted energy in a particular direction, improving throughput, reliability and, where required, range; and wider radio channels that are defined only in the relatively underutilized 5 GHz unlicensed bands. Current 802.11ac access point models support up to 1.3 Gbps, with lower-cost 866 Mbps access points now becoming more widely available as well, and the standard itself extends all the way to 6.93 Gbps -- although products with that level of performance are unlikely anytime soon due to the underlying complexity of such implementations.
Even more important than this performance boost is that 802.11ac access points operating in backwards-compatible 802.11n mode, with current 802.11n clients, yield 15% to 20% better throughput than current 802.11n access points, based on our own testing to date. This improved throughput means that enterprise WLANs currently using 802.11n clients can realize a big boost in capacity, simply by substituting 802.11ac access points -- which, by the way, cost about the same as their 802.11n counterparts. It's also worth noting that while mobile devices equipped with 802.11ac are in short supply at the moment, the number is expected to rapidly increase during 2014.
It's easy to recommend that any deployments of previously unprovisioned space (the greenfield case) should use 802.11ac. 802.11ac should also be substituted in any pending orders of 802.11n access points, with the only proviso being to make sure that the existing management console can support such mixed configurations.
It's difficult to understand how waiting to deploy 802.11ac access points makes any sense today. Assuming that demands for capacity are continuing to increase everywhere (driven by BYOD mobile devices often being unable to connect to a wired network), the alternatives are either to do nothing and wait, which exacerbates the capacity problem, or deploy more 802.11n access points, which means investing in a technology that is not going to see further enhancements.
Some have suggested waiting for the so-called wave 2 versions of 802.11ac, which feature higher throughput of 1.8 and even 3.5 Gbps, as well as a capability known as multi-user MIMO, which enables multiple clients to be addressed with distinct data streams during a single access point transmit cycle. Multi-user MIMO will require new clients to make this work (sorry, no firmware upgrades in this case), and while some products here may appear in late 2014, it will be several years before multi-user MIMO and the other advanced features of wave 2 dominate the market.
The need for assurance functionality
Even if a given IT shop chooses not to deploy 802.11ac today despite the obvious benefits, there is one irrefutable and even urgent justification for installation of at least some 802.11ac access points right now -- assurance functionality. Assurance in this case refers primarily to rogue access point detection and intrusion detection and prevention. Note that an 802.11n access point or WLAN sensor cannot detect 802.11ac, so 802.11ac access points configured as sensors -- or dedicated 802.11ac sensors -- are required no matter what. The security and integrity of the WLAN, and the network overall, demand at least some investment in what is clearly going to become the mainstream wireless-LAN technology going forward. Note that 802.11ac access points deployed as sensors can later be converted to access if desired, although assurance functionality is always required regardless.
There is one other gigabit-class WLAN technology that will see increasing utilization over the next few years -- 802.11ad, which was approved over a year ago and which operates in the 60 GHz bands. It's unlikely the two standards will directly compete, however -- 802.11ac will likely replace 802.11n as the mainstream enterprise standard, with 802.11ad filling in in critical power-user, video and specialized high-throughput applications.
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