Upgrading To 802.11ac WiFi: 4 Coping Strategies

The latest version of WiFi, 802.11ac, is still making its way into the enterprise, in the lull before Wave 2 products arrive. Follow these tips to make the upgrade process less painful.

Dirk Gates

February 6, 2015

3 Min Read
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Employees in all types of businesses around the world use wireless devices in their workplaces. Most connect multiple mobile devices to the corporate WiFi network simultaneously. The latest devices available on the market, whether smartphone, tablet or laptop, take advantage of the latest WiFi standard, 802.11ac, which offers data transfer speeds three times faster than before. By the end of 2015, 70% of all WiFi devices will support the 802.11ac standard, according to ABI Research.

And as organizations plan ahead for 2016, network architects need to think about the transition to 802.11ac Wave 2. There are four considerations to keep in mind as you maintain and upgrade your WLAN:

Device support requirements
A significant number of businesses still rely on WiFi networks running older versions of the 802.11 standard, and experience slow connections and transfer speeds as their number of devices increases. 802.11ac technology offers multiple advantages, including faster speeds, reduced interference, and lower device power consumption.

In order to prepare for the 802.11ac transition and to maximize benefits, IT departments should specify that any new company purchases that connect to WiFi are 802.11ac enabled. They should also recommend that employees who connect their own devices to the network use 802.11ac support when possible.

Because 802.11ac operates in the 5GHz spectrum, it alleviates interference issues residing in the more crowded 2.4GHz spectrum. This allows 802.11ac to support the ever-growing number of devices connecting to WiFi. As the number of wireless devices on your network increases, 802.11ac will help maximize network performance.

Equipment replacement alternatives
In the latter half of 2014, 802.11ac adoption increased in both new WiFi networks and network upgrades. However, upgrading to new WiFi standards presents challenges that hinder the rate of adoption. Traditionally, upgrading a WiFi network required replacing all existing access points with the latest technology.

Manually replacing dozens, if not hundreds, of access points significantly impacts IT budgets with equipment and labor costs, taxing an IT organization's time and resources. Today, WiFi networks can be deployed with modular access points that allow only radio replacements and software upgrades. Modular access points significantly reduce the cost of equipment replacement and re-provisioning.

Implement traffic segmentation
WiFi devices vary in size and type. Those enabled with legacy WiFi standards operate at slower speeds than those with 802.11ac. Mixing different client types on the same network creates significant performance bottlenecks. Like a slow moving truck on a highway that cars are unable to steer around or pass, slower devices impede the performance of faster devices.

Segmenting devices of the same type onto separate radios helps alleviate these traffic jams. Faster devices operate on radios at full-speed, independent of slower devices. This separation is important to ensure faster 11ac devices can operate at their promised speeds.

Plan for the next wireless standard
Wireless standards continue to evolve -- there have been six primary 802.11 standards in the past 14 years. New, faster technologies such as 802.11ad, 802.11ah and 802.11ax continue to develop. The original 802.11 standard emerged at a time when WiFi devices had more intelligence, control and horsepower than the WiFi network.

Today, the vast use of smart mobile devices, the immense population of mobile applications, and the evolution of the Internet of Things necessitate another evolution in WiFi network protocols. The WiFi infrastructure must now control network operations such as channel selection, roaming decisions, and spectrum use to further improve WiFi performance and reliability.

Considering today's WiFi needs and standards, as well as those that will be developing in the future, will help you build a WLAN that delivers now and prepares you for tomorrow.

Learn more about building solid WiFi networks in the Mobile & Wireless Track at Interop Las Vegas this spring. Don't miss out! Register now for Interop, April 27 to May 1, and receive $200 off.

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