Enterprise CTOs and CIOs continually monitor the market for cutting-edge technology advancements that can set their business apart. Find the right technology, and an organization can leapfrog the competition. On the other hand, it could be taking an unnecessary risk that increases infrastructure costs and provides little benefit. But waiting too long could mean falling behind. Timing is everything. One of the next major decision points for enterprise leaders in the coming year will be around when and how aggressively to transition over to Wi-Fi 6E.
The promise of Wi-Fi 6E is significant. Significantly boosted bandwidth (more channels) and hence less RF congestion will help wireless networks keep pace with soaring numbers of mobile and IoT devices as well as enable new and emerging applications like augmented reality, all while keeping each connected device performing at an optimum level. It’s the ultimate in Wi-Fi performance. Wi-Fi 6E (along with 5G for the WAN) is the future of wireless networking for the foreseeable future, but the question of when and how to adopt the technology is more difficult to answer.
The potential of Wi-Fi 6E to clog networks
With its higher speeds, Wi-Fi 6E will increase the access point uplink requirements and necessitate IEEE 802.3bz connectivity to the access layer switching infrastructure. Although 2.5-, 5-, and 10-Gbps capabilities already exist on current access switches, there hasn’t been a real-world need for more than 1 Gbps uplinks to Wi-Fi access points to date outside of low density or controlled environments.
While the prior generation, Wi-Fi 6, boosted the efficiency of airtime utilization thanks to features such as OFDMA and MU-MIMO, along with BSS Coloring, it didn’t address the continuously increasing congestion in the limited RF spectrum available for Wi-Fi in the 2.4- and 5-GHz bands. With the limited spectrum, or channels, even in high traffic environments, it’s rare to see sustained uplink throughput at or above 1 Gbps.
Thanks to the move to the 6 GHz spectrum, more RF spectrum, and hence channels, will become available, and this will lead to a massive spike in the peak throughput of the network. Additionally, since Wi-Fi 6E will not have any legacy protocol support or backwards compatibility mechanisms, every device will have access to its own super-speed lane, opening traffic for all devices.
The potential for Wi-Fi 6E is obvious, but only in the context of an end-to-end transition. While some leading organizations have already begun to implement enterprise Wi-Fi 6E access points, client devices lag behind. It won’t be long before a very small number of "Wi-Fi 6E enabled" devices appear in the market, but a mass migration to 6 GHz networks likely won’t occur for a number of years. And when that happens, the network infrastructure must be up to the task.
Device manufacturers, such as Apple, help drive the demand, and most workstations and laptops currently in circulation in the enterprise are not capable of supporting 6E. That will continue to be the case in many places, as network refresh cycles are often tied to 3- to 5-year intervals.
Additionally, 6 GHz is a brand-new RF spectrum band, and there are already potential hardware complications to consider, such as investing in new access points. CTOs and CIOs must be sure that the infrastructure they deploy will not degrade performance for the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz clients because it will be years until the bulk of clients in the average network have 6 GHz radios. Another challenge is that with increased frequency comes reduced ability for signals to travel through walls and solid objects.
Preparing for a new world of wireless
Based on these considerations, decision-makers must be prudent in their investment strategy. Wi-Fi 6E is an important change, so it’s important that technology leaders take the time needed to make sure the change is made thoughtfully and correctly the first time. With that goal in mind, here are four simple steps enterprises can take in 2022 to help prepare for the eventual migration to Wi-Fi 6E:
Eliminate Legacy Bottlenecks. Many networks have legacy technology bottlenecks in the network, such as Wi-Fi controllers, that will cause complications when migrating to a 6 GHz network. Beginning to rework the architecture of the network today is a good step towards enabling the shift to Wi-Fi 6E in the near future.
- Conduct Testing in High Traffic Areas. The shift to Wi-Fi 6E includes major implications for network traffic as a whole, but there isn’t a requirement to change the entire network overnight. Enabling Wi-Fi 6E in major traffic areas, such as a large conference room or classroom, one section of a stadium, or one terminal in an airport, is a good way to test and learn the technology and better estimate its impact before making large-scale decisions.
- Transition to Cloud Wi-Fi and a decentralized dataplane. Wi-Fi fully managed through the cloud will be required to bring the simplicity and intelligence needed to realize the full benefits promised by Wi-Fi 6E. Additionally, with the soaring speeds at the edge, it is even more critical that enterprises start to shift away from the legacy model of centralizing the dataplane with all traffic routing through a WLAN controller as this can be a serious throughput and reliability bottleneck. Enterprises that still heavily rely on on-prem boxes in the NOC should begin transitioning to a cloud solution before it becomes absolutely necessary to ensure they’re ready for the shift to Wi-Fi 6E without delays when it becomes ubiquitous.
- Re-evaluate Your Wi-Fi Network as a Whole. As stated, this is potentially a monumental change for enterprises on the scale with the introduction of Wi-Fi 6E at large. Now is the right time for an organization to evaluate its network and test new solutions, either with an existing technology provider or by exploring new vendors. A best practice for enterprises in these early days is to start to deploy Wi-Fi 6E infrastructure in areas of their buildings that have the highest density and hence the most pressing requirement for Wi-Fi 6E as clients become available. This will enable enterprises to gain experience with Wi-Fi 6E while balancing the cost and risk of refreshing the infrastructure.
While today may not be the right time for enterprises to fully transition to Wi-Fi 6E, now IS the right time to prepare for the shift and ensure that they aren’t left in the wake of their competitors at the beginning of a new era of wireless networking.
Christian Gilby is Juniper Networks Senior Director of Product Marketing, AI-Driven Enterprise.