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

The 802.11ac wireless standard will be ratified in 2013, and pre-standard consumer hardware is on the market. Follow these five steps to prepare now for the day when 802.11ac comes knocking.

November 26, 2012

4 Min Read
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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 MachineThe 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 Ethernet4. Re-evaluate Your WLAN Vendor

As 11ac looms, so do the pressures of BYOD's endless explosion and "unified" client access, wireless switch management, networks without borders and cloud-enabled everything. Whether we realize it or not, many of us are standing at the juncture of a number of decisions that will have to be made simultaneously.

Now is a time for reflection before the 802.11ac tide rises in earnest. Is your current WLAN getting it done for you? Are you happy with tech support, sales engineers, management platforms and the delivery of features versus the rate of bug fixes for controllers and ancillary management boxes? Do you see yourself buying into unified wired, wireless, NAC and other network services? If so, don't assume your WLAN incumbent will be your "11ac plus everything else" vendor. At the same time, change is difficult, so now is the time to contemplate whether an 11ac upgrade will also come with a new vendor.

5. Re-evaluate Your Ethernet Network

Once you get familiar with the promise of 11ac, you may wonder if keeping a robust, wired Ethernet environment alongside 11ac is worth the effort and cost. At an Aruba AirHeads conference I attended a few years back, I was struck by the mantra of "Wireless where you can, wired where you must" that pervaded the event. Nowhere does this philosophy have more relevance than where 802.11ac is concerned. With features like Multi-User MIMO (MU-MIMO) and whiz-bang modulation schemes combined with extremely high data rates, 11ac has the potential to deliver wireless access in a way that more imitates a switch than a hub. Even with 11n, environments like my own are finding that there is little that can't be done over wireless, including full Active Directory workstation functions.

Drawing down the wired Ethernet environment is a polarizing topic, and doesn't make sense in all cases. But at the same time, 11ac changes the discussion. And it is an important discussion to have ahead of 11ac's arrival, especially if budget saved on wired networking helps fund an 11ac rollout.

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