With enterprise WLANs under constant pressure from growing user mobility demands and an influx of new devices, a wireless networking pro's job isn't easy. And it doesn't look like it will get any easier this year. As we plow ahead into 2017, those who build and manage WLANs expect several emerging trends will hit the WiFi space for better or worse. Here are the top three.
Internet of Things
The predicted deluge of IoT devices is creeping closer. IHS forecasts that the installed base of IoT devices will grow from 15.4 billion in 2015 to 30.7 billion in 2020. Dell 'Oro Group estimates an installed base of nearly 1 billion WLAN network devices by 2020 and expects these WLAN devices will be the primary way most IoT devices connect to networks.
For George Stefanick, wireless network architect at Houston Methodist Hospital and Interop ITX review board member, the growth of IoT – especially in the healthcare industry -- raises a number of concerns. He compares the rise of IoT to the way Apple brought an influx of personal phones and tablets into the enterprise, kick-starting a trend that became known as BYOD.
"Enterprises want to use some of this technology, but it's not necessarily enterprise grade," Stefanick told me in a phone interview.
The lack of a dashboard to manage IoT devices, is scary, he said: "The problem is you're having multiple manufacturers bringing to market different types of devices. Ideally in an enterprise, you need one pane of glass where you can manage the devices."
Particularly worrisome is the lack of enterprise-grade security in many IoT devices, Stefanick added.
Rowell Dionicio, a network engineer at a large university in the Bay Area, agreed. "As IoT continues to take over, I believe security will be the biggest issue," he told me in an email interview.
"IoT will continue to be a challenge because of the inexpensive hardware that's installed in these devices," he added. "We will see more use cases for IoT in almost all aspects of the office, from light bulbs to paper towel dispensers and sprinkler systems. Everyone wants to gather data for analysis, which means we need better support for security."
The first 802.11ac Wave 2 access point was released in April 2015, and since then there's been a steady stream of Wave 2 APs hitting the market. Wave 2 brings the benefit of MU-MIMO and the ability to service up to three concurrent streams to different users. Unfortunately, few clients support Wave 2, Stefanick said.
"The manufacturers are always quick to push the latest and greatest, but there are few clients that support it," he said.
And even as enterprises are just now catching up to 802.11ac, the next standard – 802.11ax – looms on the horizon. While it's still in development, Stefanick is worried. "You can't greenfield that. I can't rip out everything and install all new [equipment]. How will it coexist?"
Lee Badman, a wireless network architect and CWNE, said he's concerned about the complexity of .ax, which promises higher speeds, and the byproducts of that complexity.
"It remains to be seen if vendors can get it right from the underlying code perspective, if marketers can stay based in reality with their performance claims, and whether the average WLAN support person will be able to grasp all the wonderful advanced stuff that will be under the hood of .ax," he said in an email.
802.11ax will impact WLAN design, but not for a few years, Dionicio said. "My biggest concern is around the automation of radios with complex modulation on networks not designed for 802.11ax," he said.
Enterprises typically manage a WLAN with on-premises controllers, but cloud-managed WLAN has been steadily gaining traction and WLAN pros expect the trend to become more prevalent this year.
"I think it's fairly inevitable with each major network vendor declaring 'We're a software company!'," Badman said. "I think certain aspects of on-premises WLAN are already showing signs of degradation in quality and supportability. Clients are going to get fed up with bugs and protracted support cases and opt to move to the pain of the vendors. That's one of the beauties of cloud-managed networking."
Dionicio also sees an upside to the trend. "Businesses want to deploy faster. They want something easier to use and they don't want to upgrade expensive controllers every three to five years," he said. "Why go with the traditional model when you get new features every other day with a cloud-managed service?"
While vendors talk about alleviating bottlenecks with cloud-managed WLAN, controller-based technology remains a valid technology, Stefanick said.
"For large enterprise customers, a controller is still a very valuable asset in today's networking," he said.