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Lisa Phifer
Lisa Phifer
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802.11ac: Time To Change Vendors?

Enterprise WLANs are facing massive change with the arrival of certified 802.11ac products. Take this opportunity to consider other vendors as you upgrade.

Over the past decade, enterprise WLANs have evolved from 802.11b (11 Mbps) to 802.11a/g (54 Mbps), followed by 802.11n (typically 300 to 450 Mbps). With this summer’s release of Wi-Fi-certified 802.11ac products pushing maximum data rates to 1.3 Gbps, enterprises are facing yet another fork-lift WLAN upgrade.

As your organization evaluates when and where to deploy 802.11ac, why not take this opportunity to revisit past deployment decisions, learn from mistakes and tap into promising new technologies? Here are three reasons why the arrival of 802.11ac might be a good time to consider changing vendors as you revamp your enterprise WLAN.

1. Completing The 5-GHz Shift

Unlike 802.11 a/g and 802.11n, 802.11ac operates exclusively in the 5-GHz band. As Wi-Fi enabled laptops, smartphones, tablets and other devices are replaced, many enterprise WLAN client populations will finally complete the agonizingly slow migration to 5 GHz that started with 802.11a. Not only will nearly all new devices connect only at 5 GHz, but they will likely have slightly shorter reach.

Given this, a good case often can be made for designing your 11ac WLAN from scratch, positioning new APs for optimal 5-GHz performance. And if you’re going to start from scratch, why limit yourself to choosing new APs from your legacy product line or vendor? Consider leaving your existing APs in place for legacy clients while deploying a separate, entirely new 802.11ac WLAN to carry new Wi-Fi clients into and through the next decade.

2. Baking Wireless Into Your Network

Most early WLANs were created as overlay networks, integrated loosely or not at all with wired access LANs. But today, more and more Ethernet jacks are gathering dust, abandoned by a new generation of new consumer electronic devices (mobile and fixed) that prefer wireless access. While Ethernet access may never fade entirely, it’s clear that Wi-Fi has become the primary enterprise LAN access method.

[The competition for 802.11ac marketshare is heating up. Read the details in "Meru Announces New 11ac AP, Throws Punches."]

Given this, enterprise LAN vendors are compelled to integrate Wi-Fi into their product lines, creating new hybrid LAN access products that go far beyond tethering WLAN controllers to Ethernet switches. For enterprises that previously coupled a WLAN from vendor X with switches sourced from vendor Y, integration may be a good reason to consider creating a new wired+wireless access LAN from vendor Z. At a minimum, it’s time to compare what X and Y have to offer against a few promising contenders.

3. Leap-frogging The Competition

This brings us to my final reason for using your organization’s next WLAN upgrade as a chance to consider different vendors and reshape your network’s future. Both wired and wireless products have evolved considerably over the past decade. Market leaders have deep pockets that enable innovation, but they’re also saddled with the burdens of legacy support. Meanwhile, new vendors have emerged, pursuing fresh approaches that sometimes prove revolutionary, for example, cloud management, role-based access, and app-aware networking.

In many ways, the first wave of 802.11ac is an incremental improvement over 802.11n. However, the second wave of 802.11ac products will incorporate innovative antenna designs, beam-forming and multi-user MIMO (MU-MIMO). During that second wave (expected in late 2014), a few visionaries will likely stand out from the crowd. It could make sense to conduct a thorough review of enterprise LAN requirements at that time, comparing not just past suppliers and market leaders, but a few new trail-blazers.

There are costs and risks that must also be considered when jumping to any new vendor and product line, but your organization’s 802.11ac upgrade may well occur at a time of innovation; don’t miss out on “the next big thing” for your network by restricting your field of vision.

Cast a wide net, do your homework and test the top contenders before making a final choice about who will supply your next-generation wired and wireless access LAN.

Lisa Phifer is president of Core Competence, a consulting firm focused on enterprise adoption of emerging network and security technologies. Lisa has been involved in the design, implementation and evaluation of networking, security and management products for 30 years.   View Full Bio
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