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802.11ac: 5 Steps to Prepare for Next-Gen WLANs

Wireless networking gets exponentially more complicated with each evolution of wireless standards. The original 802.11 standard alone can floor the uninitiated with its technical nitty-gritty, and 11ac is to the original 802.11 standard what an aircraft carrier is to your uncle’s bass boat. Yet to know when to jump in on 11ac and what it can really do for your environment, you’ll need to sift the promise from the payoff before you buy into the next generation of wireless. Here are five steps to help you prepare.

1. Be Wary of the Hype Machine
The 11ac standard makes data rates of almost 5 Gbps possible, but not right out of the gate, and maybe not even before the standard that will succeed 11ac comes along. Consider 802.11n: It has a maximum potential of 600 Mbps, but it has yet to reach that potential even as 11ac is nearly here. You’ll find WLAN marketing that promises 11n access points that deliver 600 Mbps, but it’s followed by fine print explaining how this is an aggregate value achieved in both 2.4 Ghz and 5 Ghz on a dual-band AP, under perfect conditions, and if the moon is aligned with Venus.

Vendors selling 11ac products will tout amazing performance numbers to increase the ‘Wow’ factor. Your best defense is knowledge. Get a working understanding of the new standard and its limitations in a production network. Make note of expected first-, second- and third-generation iterations of 11ac, and don’t get taken when the 11ac hype-machine starts working in high gear. There’s a variety of information you can read up on, including a primer from Cisco that offers a vendor-neutral overview of the standard. InformationWeek Reports also has a new report on 802.11ac that discusses, among other things, which 11ac features enterprises should consider.

2. Buy Consumer 11ac Gear and Play Around

When it comes time to migrate the enterprise to 11ac, most of us will have to make major decisions on funding, as the migration will come at a premium. At the same time, you don’t have to spend a lot to put together an 11ac test environment. Netgear, Buffalo, Belkin and others in the consumer space are marketing “early 11ac” routers and adapters. Though none will be exact fits for what will come in the first enterprise versions of 11ac, they still can provide low-cost views into the bells and whistles that the new standard will bring. Pre-standard 11n gear served many of us in the professional WLAN community as learning tools. 11n was a feature-packed, highly configurable standard. With 11ac, the effect will only be magnified.

3. Talk With Your Toolmakers

A wireless network is only as good as the people who support it and the tools they use. Many WLAN admins have favorites from Air Magnet, Ekahau, Tamosoft and others. From survey and spectrum analysis to wireless packet capture, 11ac will change how we build and run networks. We’ll need our toolmaker partners to be up to speed before we can migrate our WLANs to 11ac, and ideally we’ll know how to support 11ac’s differences before we hang the first production AP. The bottom line: If your tools aren’t ready for 11ac, neither are you.

Next Page: Re-Evaluate Vendors and Wired Ethernet

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