With the 802.11 WiFi standard celebrating its 25th birthday this month, it's interesting to look back at how wireless networking has advanced over the years. If you’re of a certain age, you might remember the original heyday of wireless networking, when toting a laptop was pretty progressive and data rates of even 2Mbps were considered impressive. Just the act of accessing the network with no patch cable was exotic, and “the wireless” used to be an accessory to the faster Ethernet network. Needless to say, time has flown.
From the original 802.11 standard, the industry's moved through 802.11b, a/g, n, and now we’re deep into 11ac. We expect data rates in the hundreds of Mbps, and WiFi has become the de facto standard for client access far and wide. Along with the evolution of technology, WiFi also spawned new terminology like wardriving, rogue APs, and pineapples, and the expectation that we should be able to hit the Internet from almost anywhere with a range of devices that none of us could imagine just a few years ago.
We’ve collectively transitioned from an era where WiFi was cool and new to one where we take it largely for granted. Autonomous access points that thought for themselves have given way to thin, controller-based APs and cloud management. Today, it takes more skill to translate complicated requirements into functional WLAN, and client access is now bundled along with a slew of features that used to happen elsewhere on the network.
WiFi has always been about what comes next, both out of the antennas and under the hood. Looking forward, wireless networking has a promising future. WiFi will continue to advance with increasing data rates and antenna counts. At the same time, it’s not all roses for enterprise WLAN architects and managers. WiFi client capabilities are glaringly fragmented between consumer and enterprise devices, and there’s much uncertainty about the sanctity of the spectrum that WiFi relies on.
Let's look at the challenges ahead for WiFi in the enterprise.
Internet of Things
WiFi-enabled device types range from personal productivity to the utilitarian, like Point of Sale and home automation. The IoT tide will very much stretch the WiFi device diversity paradigm even further, but well also have to see how much 4G/5G, Zigbee, and Bluetooth take a share of the IoT market. The lack of enterprise WiFi security features will remain a barrier to more rapid adoption of WiFi IoT devices, until members of the Wi-Fi Alliance tighten up their client offerings.
The current wireless standard promises to deliver excitement for at least a number of years. Each wave of 11ac feels like a new standard unto itself, with huge leaps in promised performance capability. With Wave 2, multi-user 4x4 MIMO has comparisons being made between WiFi and switching (which is incorrect as WiFi is still shared media and half-duplex), and we actually are at a place where if everything lines up, your WiFi connection may be occasionally faster than wired Ethernet. Given that 11ac may go up to almost 7 Gbps data rates and 8x8 MIMO, theres still a lot of potential sizzle here given that were just getting to the halfway point of 11ns potential today.
For years, WiFi essentially owned the 2.4 GHz ISM and 5 GHz U-NII bands. Those of us in the business of wireless networking keep hoping for ever more spectrum from the Federal Communications Commission, and get nervous when anything threatens what weve come to rely on in the bands for delivering client access. Given that WiFi plays in unlicensed spectrum, current threats from LTE-U and oddballs like TLPS mean that we soon may no longer have our frequencies to ourselves as weve become accustomed to. High-performing WiFi is harder to deliver in cluttered spectrum where competing technologies have different rules and protocols.
(Image: Atid Kiattisaksiri/iStockphoto)
Feature sets of WLAN systems are expanding in impressive, and sometimes concerning, directions. From access points that do ad injection to controllers that provide firewalling and application visibility and control, the WiFi story has become much larger than just 802.11-based client access. This complexity is a double-edged sword, providing incredible functionality but also endless opportunities for code bugs, even among leading vendors; code bugs become a frustrating way of life for WLAN customers.
(Image: Tuomas Kujansuu/iStockphoto)
Those "other" 802.11 standards
802.11ac is the current client access standard, but theres a lot more to the wireless experience than just getting clients connected. Other parts of the 802.11 standard are becoming more important on modern wireless networks: 802.11.k, .r, and .v all contribute to higher client performance by accelerating the association and roaming processes. Theres a lot of promise here that will eventually be recognized, but again, the client device space is currently extremely fragmented. Until things get more uniform, you may have to use separate SSIDs to let clients take advantage of .11k/r/v features.
You dont have a billion-dollar industry without politics entering the picture. As wireless technologies of various sorts compete for both spectrum and customer dollars, groups like the Wi-Fi Alliance, the Bluetooth Special Interest Group, mobile carriers, the IEEE, the FCC and other players will continue to slug things out. Well see alliances ebb and flow, lots of lobbying by various interested parties, and plenty of nail-biting as everything going on around the WLAN space promises to both complement and compete with WiFi.
- Lee Badman
- Connect Directly
What's Ahead For WiFi: 6 Key Challenges
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