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Definition

wireless ad-hoc network (WANET)

Contributor(s): Corinne Bernstein

A wireless ad-hoc network (WANET) is a type of local area network (LAN) that is built spontaneously to enable two or more wireless devices to be connected to each other without requiring a central device, such as a router or access point. When Wi-Fi networks are in ad-hoc mode, each device in the network forwards data to the others.

Since the devices in the ad-hoc network can access each other's resources directly through a basic point-to-point wireless connection, central servers are unnecessary for functions such as file shares or printers. In a wireless ad-hoc network, a collection of devices (or nodes) is responsible for network operations, such as routing, security, addressing and key management.

How does it work?

Devices in the ad-hoc network require a wireless network adapter, and they need to support a hosted network. When setting up a wireless ad-hoc network, each wireless adapter must be configured for ad-hoc mode instead of infrastructure mode. All wireless adapters need to use the same service set identifier (SSID) and channel number.

Creating an ad-hoc network for Windows 8 and 10 applications is more difficult than it was for earlier Windows OSes. Networking experts offer pointers on how to tackle this issue.

Uses

Deciding when to employ ad-hoc versus infrastructure mode depends on the use. A user who wants a wireless router to act as an access point should choose infrastructure mode, but ad-hoc mode might be a good option for a user setting up a temporary wireless network between a small number of devices.

Ad-hoc networks are used frequently in new types of wireless engineering. Wireless ad-hoc networks require minimal configuration and can be deployed quickly, which makes them suitable for emergencies, such as natural disasters or military conflicts. Thanks to the presence of dynamic and adaptive routing protocols, these networks can be configured quickly. These impromptu, on-demand networks are useful for putting together a small, inexpensive all-wireless LAN. They also work well as a temporary fallback mechanism if equipment for an infrastructure mode network fails.

Types of ad-hoc wireless networks

Types of ad-hoc wireless networks vary by application. A mobile ad hoc network (MANET) involves mobile devices communicating directly with one another. A MANET is a network of wireless mobile devices without an infrastructure that are self-organizing and self-configuring and is sometimes referred to as an "on-the-fly" or "spontaneous network."

Meanwhile, internet-based mobile ad-hoc networks (iMANETs) support internet protocols, such as TCP/IP and UDP. The iMANET employs a network-layer routing protocol to connect mobile nodes and set up distributed routes automatically. MANETs may also be used in the collection of sensor data for data mining for a variety of applications, such as air pollution monitoring.

Smartphone ad-hoc networks (SPANs) employ existing hardware, such as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, and software (protocols) in smartphones to create peer-to-peer (P2P) networks without relying on cellular carrier networks, wireless access points or traditional network infrastructure. Different from traditional hub-and-spoke networks, such as Wi-Fi Direct, SPANs support multi-hop relays. Since there is no notion of a group leader in this type of application, peers can join or leave without harming the network.

Another type of wireless ad-hoc network, a vehicular ad-hoc network, involves communication devices in cars. These networks are employed for communication between vehicles and roadside equipment.

Wireless mesh networks, comprised of radio networks set up in a mesh topology, frequently consist of mesh clients, mesh routers and gateways. In a mesh network, the devices -- or nodes -- are connected so at least some, and sometimes all, have many paths to other nodes. This creates many routes for information between pairs of users, increasing the resilience of the network if a node or connection fails.

Other types of ad-hoc wireless networks include wireless sensor networks, ad-hoc home smart lighting, ad-hoc street light networks, ad-hoc networks of robots, disaster rescue ad-hoc networks and hospital ad-hoc networks. Wireless ad-hoc networks also have a number of military applications, such as Army tactical MANETs, Air Force UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) ad-hoc networks and Navy ad-hoc networks.

Overall, wireless ad-hoc networks have advantages and disadvantages. Although some Wi-Fi networking experts maintain that for small LANs, ad-hoc networks don't require as much hardware and can be less costly to build, others assert that large numbers of devices can be challenging to manage without a larger, more concrete infrastructure.

Features

Instead of relying on a base station to coordinate the flow of messages to each node in the network, the individual nodes in ad-hoc networks forward packets to and from each other. In Latin, ad hoc literally means "for this," meaning "for this special purpose" and also, by extension, improvised or impromptu. Makeshift by nature, ad-hoc wireless networks are useful where there isn't a wireless structure built -- for example, if there aren't any access points or routers within range.

In the Windows operating system, ad-hoc is a communication mode (setting) that allows computers to directly communicate with each other without a router.

Ad-hoc networks, which can be wired or wireless, are also known as P2P networks because the devices communicate directly and do not rely on servers. Similar to other P2P configurations, ad-hoc networks typically consist of a small group of devices in close proximity to each other.

However, not all Wi-Fi networks are the same. In fact, Wi-Fi access points work in either "ad-hoc" or "infrastructure" mode. Typically, Wi-Fi networks in infrastructure mode are created by Wi-Fi routers; meanwhile, ad-hoc networks are often short-lived networks created by a laptop or other device. Network protocols and algorithms available for wired and infrastructure-less wireless networks usually are not suitable for ad-hoc networks.

Advantages

Ad-hoc mode can be easier to set up than infrastructure mode when just connecting two devices without requiring a centralized access point. For example, if a user has two laptops and is in a hotel room without Wi-Fi, they can be connected directly in ad-hoc mode to create a temporary Wi-Fi network without a router. The Wi-Fi Direct standard -- a specification that allows devices certified for Wi-Fi Direct to exchange data without an internet connection or a wireless router -- also builds on ad-hoc mode and enables devices to communicate directly over Wi-Fi signals.

Other benefits of wireless ad-hoc networks include the following:

  • Because ad-hoc networks do not require access points, these networks provide a low-cost way of direct client-to-client communication.
  • Ad-hoc networks are easy to configure and offer an effective way to communicate with devices nearby when time is of the essence and running cable is not feasible.
  • Ad-hoc networks are often secured to protect against attacks. Otherwise, their temporary, often impromptu qualities could make them vulnerable.
  • An ad-hoc network linking a small number of devices might be better than a regular network with more users connected.

Disadvantages

One major drawback of wireless ad-hoc networking is that some Wi-Fi enabled technology, including Android devices, wireless printers and Google's Chromecast, don't support ad-hoc mode because of its limitations and will only connect to networks in infrastructure mode.

Infrastructure mode is a better option than ad-hoc mode for setting up a more permanent network. Wireless routers that serve as access points typically have higher-power wireless radios and antennas that provide coverage of a wider area. When a laptop is used to set up a wireless network, the laptop's wireless radio won't be as strong as that of a router.

What's more, ad-hoc networks do not scale well. As the number of devices in an ad-hoc network increases, it gets harder to manage because there isn't a central device through which all traffic flows. When several devices are connected to the ad-hoc network, more wireless interference will occur as each device has to establish a direct connection to each of the other devices, instead of going through a single access point. When a device is out of range of another device, to which it needs to connect, it will pass the data through other devices on the way; this is slower than passing it through a single access point.

Other disadvantages of ad-hoc wireless networks include the following:

  • Devices in an ad-hoc network cannot disable SSID broadcasting as devices in infrastructure mode can. As a result, attackers can find and connect to an ad-hoc device if they are within signal range.
  • Wireless ad-hoc networks cannot bridge wired LANs or to the internet without installing a special-purpose network gateway.
  • Devices can only use the internet if one of them is connected to and sharing it with the others. When internet sharing is enabled, the client performing this function may face performance problems, especially if there are lots of interconnected devices.
  • Ad-hoc mode requires more system resources as the physical network layout changes as devices are moved around; in contrast, an access point in infrastructure mode typically remains stationary.
This was last updated in November 2019

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