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Like NASCAR, Wireless Networking Is Getting More Intense

Everything about NASCAR racing is getting more extreme, and the same can be said for wireless networking. Whether we're talking tricked-out car engines or intelligent access points, nothing is like it used to be. To see exactly how involved the world of business Wi-Fi is getting, let's consider the NASCAR analogy.

Whereas junior marketers might jump on the "fast cars, fast connectivity" notion, in my mind the better comparison is on sheer complexity. From Wi-Fi standards to racing rules, the governing frameworks that both wireless networking and NASCAR operate in would blow the minds of pioneers from either space. Under the hood, today's access points are race cars, and the marketing and money involved with fielding a winning product set or a champion race team are both huge. "Users" of NASCAR are the fans, and the race continues until completion or an accident interrupts the flow of traffic. Whether disruptions occur on the track or on the WLAN, it takes very specialized skill sets to work on current-generation wireless networks or NASCAR vehicles.

On the right track under good conditions, today's NASCAR vehicles will top 200 mph, while our current-generation 802.11n wireless networks can deliver data rates of 300 Mbps and actual throughputs that are just under half of that. With 802.11ac, we'll eventually see data rates of 1,000 Mbps. Just as NASCAR has matured into a sport enabled by advanced technology, modern wireless equipment pushes the comprehension abilities of many in networking as we've gone far beyond the simple spread-spectrum signaling and antenna diversity of early wireless standards.

Breaking down the magic of a NASCAR engine or latest-model wireless network product from any vendor takes us into some pretty heady waters. Modern race-car motors can generate well over 700 horsepower, using components built to precision tolerances and tricked out to ensure the right mixture of fuel and air beat against specialized cams and pistons to power the modern rolling rocket ship that is a NASCAR vehicle.

High-performance access points combine advanced processing capabilities with whiz-bang radio features like beamforming, band steering, smart antenna technologies and spatial multiplexing to jack up data rates to levels that make marketing departments giddy. Both NASCAR and modern wireless are moving users, drivers and maintainers into new places that none of us could have imagined a decade ago.

I am pretty adept at performing my own vehicle tune-ups and doing minor maintenance, but pop the hood on a NASCAR vehicle and I'd be clueless about where to begin fixing the beast. Likewise, most wireless users don't have an inkling about the physics and technology that fill white paper after white paper as WLAN vendors try to one-up each other with some pretty obtuse (but important to the techiest among us) performance claims to win business. With fast cars, as with fast wireless, things roll along fine until they don't--and then those of us with specialized skills need to quickly step in, assess, explain and make things right for the others who simply want to consume the race, or the network bandwidth, without knowing all the gory details.

But the gory details do matter. They're what make one car just a skosh faster than another, and why one wireless cell has some percentage higher data rates closer to the cell edge. The details in the racing rules help determine which driver gets a coveted pole position, just as the details in wireless networking standards spell out optional features that manufacturers might leverage to squeeze even more oomph out of their product sets.

It's silly to think that the average NASCAR fan could differentiate a stock camshaft from a radically redesigned racing cam, or that the notion of spatial multiplexing would even register with the average WLAN user. But for those of us who build wireless networks or race cars, we do need to master the minutiae, and understand why Ruckus claims to outperform Cisco or Aruba claims better cells than Meru. We either really get it and master our own fates, or we roll the dice and hope our networks turn out OK and that the sales reps didn't take us for too much of a ride. Whether we're hitting turn three at Daytona going 190 mph or monitoring 10,000 users on a million-dollar WLAN, the stakes are high these days.