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802.11n: Wireless Rookies Need Not Apply

Make no mistake: even in draft form, 802.11n is a game-changer.

The fledgling standard promises better-quality cells that benefit from multiple in, multiple out (MIMO) antenna arrays and throughputs that are, at a minimum, on par with 11a and 11g at 54 Mbps but more stable. And at best, they're amazing, with triple-digit data rates.

But when analysis and troubleshooting are needed, 802.11n's advanced features can greatly slow problem resolution.

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Whether you plan on squeezing as much bandwidth as possible out of 802.11n networks or you need to provide connectivity to as many users as possible in an 11n setting, you'll need to thoroughly plan and evaluate your new wireless environments. And without the right monitoring tools, you're sunk.

To succeed in an 802.11n world, wireless administrators need to do some homework. 802.11n brings a whole new vocabulary and new concepts to be mastered.

First, admins need to learn what makes 802.11n tick, then answer these questions: Should the organization maximize its network efficiency, with throughput speeds that are dizzying but with certain clients blocked? Or is compatibility mode more appropriate, accommodating more legacy users but at lower overall cell speeds? What about the special options, like frame aggregation and short guard intervals? And how many spatial streams (the number of receivers and transmitters) can you actually use, given the makeup of your wireless clients and switching infrastructure?

After determining which configuration option will best serve their environments, 802.11n wireless network admins need to assess the analysis tools they have on hand and figure out which ones will play well with this unique wireless technology and what emerging support tools they'll need to purchase.

802.11n is becoming a viable platform for mission-critical networks. Really. Find out who's offering what.

Successful rollouts will no doubt take budget dollars away from other IT projects, although some environments will find their infrastructure is 802.11n-ready when it comes to switches, wireless controllers, and power. In these cases, 802.11n will come much cheaper than for organizations that need an infrastructure upgrade to get ready for it. But even if companies face substantial up-front costs to revamp their infrastructure, the advantages of high-speed wireless--greater mobility and portability among them--will make its adoption an imperative.

Along with an overall better radio environment, 802.11n is good news for the applications that run on it. For example, wireless streaming video and voice over a wireless LAN should perform more reliably and predictably with 802.11n. And although ratification of the final standard is still possibly a year away, vendors such as AirMagnet, Berkeley Varitronics Systems, and Ekahau already are offering 802.11n-capable support tools to ease implementation as well as transition.

802.11n, with theoretical data rates to 600 Mbps, can deliver faster cells with better signal quality and has the potential to decrease overall infrastructure costs and enable new applications.

Many spectrum analysis tools developed for 802.11a/g will work with 802.11n. Bigger vendors, including AirMagnet, Berkeley Varitronics, Cisco, and Fluke Networks--along with smaller players like AirSleuth and MetaGeek--provide tools that characterize the spectrum in which 11n operates. However, packet analysis will require a new breed of tools. AirMagnet, WildPackets, and Cace Technologies (AirPcap) are players in the 802.11n packet analysis market.

Those blistering data rates don't come easy. And 802.11n shares spectrum with legacy protocols. To squeeze the most out of 802.11n wireless environments, a well-thought-out game plan and a decent toolkit are required. Understanding 802.11n's nuances will be half the support battle, and knowing what tool to use for a specific problem will be the other half.

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