We hear a lot about the Internet of Things. It’s almost like a bogeyman of sorts, always lurking just around the bend. Though IoT generates a lot of headlines, after a while it’s easy to get numb to the hype. At the same time, smart wireless network administrators are paying attention to the IoT phenomena, and there is increasing anxiety about what it will really come to mean to our WiFi networks.
With the Internet of Things, there is still a tremendous amount of wait-and-see about how much of the device pie will be supported by WiFi vs. 4G/5G, and technologies like Zigbee. But we know for certain that some percentage of IoT devices will connect via WiFi, and we also know that it likely won’t be pretty.
In some ways, IoT couldn’t come at a worse time. WLAN administrators currently face a fairly major fragmentation of the WiFi client device space, and the companies making the worst of the worst wireless devices either don’t get that their products are hard to support in the enterprise, or they don’t care. Our business WiFi networks already see a lot of performance-sucking by-products of a client market that never really got its act together despite the promises of interoperability by groups like the WiFi alliance, and we’re not exactly in the right collective mindset for the IoT onslaught. To WLAN admins, there is no longer a line between consumer and business WLAN clients, as everything makes its way to the corporate WiFi network.
Interestingly, we have huge dollars being spent on 802.11ac Wave 2 networks that promise data rates well above 1 Gbps, but laptop makers like Dell are still selling products with single-band 2.4 GHz slow-lane WiFi adapters. You have to scour the market to find a printer or projector that works right on business-grade secure WLAN networks. There is little reason to assume that IoT devices that use WLAN connectivity will be very well thought out when it comes to functioning on standards-based networks.
Analysts predict billions of new devices and trillions of dollars in IoT expenditures by 2025, so the WLAN community can expect at least some millions of new gadgets to land in our 802.11 spaces. I’m personally already dealing with WiFi enabled locks (good for 802.1X but stuck in 2.4 GHz) and lab monitoring equipment (crappy security and poor radios), so I’m experiencing a bit of what the IoT future holds.
The technologist in me loves that everything under the sun can eventually connect, but my WLAN admin side knows the penalties and pain that that these devices bring. Traditional worries of how to simply address them all are solved by NAT and IPv6, but we’re facing a raft of other issues. To begin with, more non-technical folks will own IoT devices, and when those devices don’t work right, the usual "blame the network first" effect will be greatly magnified.
At the physical layer, the IoT will bring a tide of cheap radios and ill-written drivers. Our fast WiFi networks may well be drastically slowed down by requirements for low data rates, and WLAN code writers will have a whole new pool of client devices to try to figure out while also preserving stability.
The entire mess may be regulated to the noisy 2.4 GHz spectrum, where we also have to accommodate computing devices that aren’t being evolved responsibly and moved into 5 GHz. Security concerns will be many, as new pivot points for network-based attacks come installed in appliances and wearables. And we may well need to segregate different device types into many more individual WLANs just based on their limitations and odd-ball requirements.
To those who are enamored with the IoT, all of these can be chalked up to the growing pains of exciting new technology. But to the business WLAN admin community, we may well be herding cats while we juggle IoT headaches unless client device reform comes along pretty quickly. As for me, I’m not holding my breath.