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Air Time: Enterprise 802.11n: How Fast?: Page 2 of 3

Perhaps an even tougher issue relates to the future compatibility of enterprise Wi-Fi controllers, the brains of today's intelligent enterprise WLAN systems. With five times the throughput of 11a and 11g, emerging 11n networks will challenge the scalability of such systems. If enterprises were inclined to deploy controllers closer to the network edge, capacity wouldn't be such a big issue. But a large proportion of network engineers want to deploy controllers at the core of the network. Vendors will face increasing pressure to address these potential performance bottlenecks, much the same way router vendors faced core packet processing challenges when Ethernet networks got faster. Here's hoping that network processor improvements can keep pace with demand.

Meanwhile, Back at the IEEE

The IEEE 802.11n task group is winding its way through the process, unable to defy historical precedent of standards delay. The task group is currently processing over 10,000 comments related to Draft 1, by far the most comments ever seen for an 802.11 standard, and the group is obligated to explicitly respond to every one. About half have already been dealt with, mostly the easy ones. Optimists suggest the committee will wrap up the comments phase by November, but the odds of that happening aren't very high. Delays will push a passable draft ballot further into 2007 and a final standard well into 2008. In the meantime, millions of products will ship with prestandard chipsets that aren't likely to be firmware upgradeable to the final standard.

The extraordinary number of comments can largely be explained by three factors. First, 11n is based on extremely complex technology, which leaves plenty of room for legitimate technical disagreement. For example, although everyone understands the need for backward compatibility with earlier 802.11 standards, some would like to see a "green-field" configuration option that would allow pure 11n environments to reap the full performance potential of the technology. However, doing so may have an adverse impact on neighboring WLANs. That's just one of many technical issues that remain.

A second reason there are so many comments is because the total number of participants is so much higher than in the past. In the earliest days of 802.11, it was a niche market and a relatively small cadre of engineers from small companies dominated the 802.11 committee. Today, 802.11 is important to almost everyone, including component providers, network and system manufacturers, and consumer product companies. A larger market translates into more participants and more comments.