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802.11ac Wireless Upgrades: 7 Key Considerations

  • Every new wireless technology rides a wave of hype into eventual wide-scale rollout. For 802.11ac, much of the buzz is certainly warranted as the latest WiFi standard promises huge performance gains.  The devil is always in the details, however, and fast radios aren’t the end of the 11ac story.

    Regardless of the size of the network, the WLAN component doesn’t work in a vacuum. The importance of introspection before an 802.11ac upgrade only increases with the size of the enterprise. Much of the decision on whether you’re ready to (or should) move to 11ac is technical, but just as much is political and strategic. Even before you can get into your own technical specifics, it’s important to gain a realistic understanding of what 11ac can for you versus what’s being touted in a lot of inaccurate news articles.

    If you’re contemplating an 802.11ac upgrade, you have probably heard about the promises of “gigabit WiFi” -- wireless that acts more like a switch because of MU-MIMO and reduced interference. It all sounds really great. But dig deeper, and you’ll find that 11ac’s top end of around 7 Gbps is a fairy tale at this point, MU-MIMO is available on limited hardware and requires a variety of situational factors to line up before it can be leveraged, and even the reduced interference notion to be heavily dependent on how you implement 11ac. In other words, wireless is just as complicated as it’s ever been, if not more.

    Once you’ve cut your own path through 11ac’s fog, you’ll likely find that it’s still a profoundly compelling wireless option. The speeds are there, even if they're less than what the marketing claims. The radio technology is better, and 11ac moves the WLAN paradigm deeper into 5 GHz and away from the sagging, noise-filled 2.4 GHz spectrum.  Advanced features like beamforming were optional and proprietary in 11n, but standardized in 11ac. Best of all, many of us will get 11ac at the same price as 11n.

    Before you actually make the jump to 11ac, there are a number of issues you should consider. The guidance provided here should help fend off potential buyer’s remorse and project gotchas, and help manage expectations for a new 802.11ac environment.

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  • Get an understanding of 11ac and share it with fellow stakeholders

    With so much misinformation and exaggeration in the media regarding 11ac, its better to go into an 802.11ac upgrade with all major players on the same page -- IT managers, staffers, and the business executives footing the bill. Which "wave" of 11ac are you getting into? What clients do you have that can actually do 11ac? Set real expectations up front.

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  • Is an RFP in order?

    Depending on where you stand with your current WLAN/LAN vendor, its fair to recognize 11ac as a juncture to consider a vendor change. If you also are due to refresh your authentication servers, onboarding mechanism, guest access and other solutions, you may want to bundle it all up and get multiple vendors competing for your business.

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  • 802.11ac takes more power

    To take full advantage of 11acs multiple radios and feature sets, most APs need the latest 802.3at Power over Ethernet for operating voltage. There are still huge numbers of older 802.3af switches out there that worked just fine for 11n, but these cant deliver the wattage generally needed for 11ac. In smaller environments, replacing a switch or two may be no big deal. In larger networks, switch replacements can add hugely to 11ac project costs.

    Image: Andreas Herpens/iStockphoto)

  • Is a gigabit uplink enough?

    One of the many polarizing issues raised by 11ac WLAN vendors is whether you can trust a single gigabit uplink to not be a bottleneck for a wireless technology that promises data rates (eventually) measured in multiple Gbps. Cisco and Aruba are developing switches that do multi-gigabit on a single standard cable run, while other vendors recommend running two cables to each AP. Then there are vendors that swear youll never need more than a gig regardless of 11acs promise. Youll have to decide for yourself what's needed, as it impacts your switching and cable plant.

    Image: Open Grid Scheduler/Flickr)

  • You still need a site survey

    Whether youre amping up a legacy design or starting fresh in a new space with 11ac, a wireless site survey by a trained WLAN professional is still in order. Simply adding 11ac to what may have been a poor design from past days wont fix anything, and popular philosophies like 1 AP per classroom are horrible alternatives to real designs. Especially where high user counts are expected, design is key to both performance and not under (or over) buying what you really need to meet the operational goals of your 802.11ac WLAN.

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  • Define your client policy

    The WLAN space has a dirty little secret these days: Wireless infrastructure is getting better while many client devices are not. Those of us designing WLANs for a living frequently agonize over where to draw the line of allowed devices. You simply cant support everything that has a wireless adapter -- theres still a lot of 11b junk out there -- and meet goals for high performance and security. As you get accustomed to 11acs higher throughputs, it gets harder to want to support older clients that drag the network down. Be ready for that showdown ahead of time.

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  • Upgrade your WiFi tools

    Whether you do packet analysis, your own wireless surveys, or simple client support on the WLAN, moving to 802.11ac means upgrading your tools. This is an area thats easy to overlook until you need to actually use the tools, then realize you cant get full visibility because youre stuck on dated code or adapters. Youll have to spend money to get current, but its an investment, especially if the tools are placed in skilled hands.

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