Kevin Drinkall, technical consultant at Zyxel, looks at emerging trends in enterprise wireless.
It’s not news that tablets and smartphones are part of our everyday workplace. As the number of mobile devices and the deployment of cloud-based enterprise services continue to grow at a dramatic rate, the infrastructure to support this growth within enterprises is struggling to keep up with the trend.
Enterprise organisations on the whole have had a steady uptake in the adaptation of 802.11ac, while industry verticals such as hospitality have been much faster on the uptake in the 802.11ac standard. This is driven by the need to serve greater numbers of devices with media rich data for cloud based applications like Netflix and Amazon Prime. Those in the hospitality industry, who have made the quick change, have done so to satisfy their clients’ needs. After all, how many of us complain about Wi-Fi in hotels?
Even now, many enterprises struggle to maintain a balance between growth in number of devices and reliable connectivity services through wireless.
With the introduction of 802.11ac wave 2, boasting its impressive high speeds, the use of four spiral streams and the support of multi-user MIMO has been hailed by many vendors as the saviour to enterprise. Many, however, neglect to explain that despite the vast improvements made in the 802.11ac wave 2 standard, in a real-world deployment the massive leap in performance is not as significant as the one users witnessed in the change from 802.11n to 802.11ac.
To realise the full benefits of wave 2 it largely depends on your user base. Without the right device mix, the benefits will be marginal. End user devices must support MU-MIMO to take advantage of the efficiencies in airtime that essentially give the appearance of faster connections. The range on MU-MIMO is far less than SU-MIMO deployments. In low-density deployments optimised for coverage, users will see very little, if any, improvements over an 802.11ac access point.
How will organisations implement these emerging trends?
Enterprises are faced with another underlying issue that many have seen before in the 2.4Ghz spectrum, used by 802.11b/g/n access points and older generation client devices. Co-channel interference is now becoming a growing issue in the 5Ghz spectrum. This specific type of interference exists when two or more access points or other devices are operating or transmitting on the same channel.
When this happens, the access points fight to talk to the devices connected, often resulting is slow performance or loss of connection. 802.11ac and 802.11ac wave 2 operate purely in the 5Ghz spectrum and with the promise of faster speeds this is achieved by simply making the channel wider. Just like a motorway we look to add more lanes to increase its capacity.
Innovative use cases for enterprise wireless trends
In wireless, there are only a few channels left when operating at full speed. The probability of coming across co-channel issues in an enterprise environment is fairly common. To add to the growing number of issues associated with co-channel interference, the US recently announced that carriers like Verizon and T-Mobile will soon be transmitting data in the same part of the public airwaves shared with Wi-Fi. The move will give the carriers increased spectrum, as they too are dealing with capacity and speed issues. However, those phone signals may interfere with Wi-Fi transmissions. While this is currently in the US, carriers across the globe are all contending with the same issues and looking to see if the role out in the US is successful before pushing to see if it can be repeated in Europe.
Enterprise wireless trends over the next 12-18 months
Firstly, to help Wi-Fi enhance the user experience, a new standard or group of 802.11 standards called ‘mobility enhancements’ are being introduced. The focus of this initiative is to improve the connected experience with Wi-Fi to create a faster, more consistent connectivity. The enhancements give managed service providers and enterprises an array of tools to deliver Wi-Fi that will feel much like cellular.
The various new standards take care of faster call setup (802.11ai), cellular-style handoffs (802.11r and 802.11ai together), and load balancing/steering (802.11k/v). Many mainstream vendors are already using the 802.11r standard to allow devices to roam from AP to AP effortlessly.
In an effort to streamline the upgrade process and make it easier to manage wireless, enterprises look to simplify their efforts by turning to cloud based platforms. While initially there was a lot of scepticism around managing infrastructure in the cloud, enterprises are now embracing this strategy. By 2018, 60% of enterprises will have at least half of their infrastructure on cloud-based platforms and IDC expects the cloud managed wireless LAN infrastructure market to achieve a 38.8% compounded annual growth rate (CAGR) between 2013-2018. In comparison, the CAGR forecast for the overall WLAN infrastructure market over that period is 11%.
Of course, there is also the new up and coming standard 802.11ax, which is still to be ratified. Over the next 12-18 months, we should start to see more about this standard and we may even see some vendors gearing up for production of 802.11ax devices. The 802.11ax specifications host an impressive array of changes that look more like an overhaul of how Wi-Fi operates than an improvement.
The 802.11ax boasts significant increases in coverage from the likes of new features like OFDMA allowing mobile devices to focus their beam towards an access point much like LTE and efficiencies by scheduling clients at the access point rather than contending each connection. This will increase not only the amount of capacity but also the throughput. The initial stats show that 802.11ax should be able to achieve four times the speed of 802.11ac at the cell edge and four times the capacity.
Whilst the 802.11ax standard does look like the next real evolution, it is being designed to be backward compatible and we will see some early adopters, I would expect enterprises to continue their path to move to standardise on the 802.11ac. standard. I would also expect to see more sophisticated switching deployed to support the increase in device numbers, along with the need to invest in higher PoE requirements to support newer access points. Enterprise organisations will need to look at both elements to ensure they achieve a good end user experience.
While there have been massive leaps in how Wi-Fi can cope with the ever-increasing demands on balancing the speed and ability to handle an increase in device numbers, many have pushed forward with 802.11ac wave 2 to grab the headlines with performance that will dazzle most – with the promise that MU-MIMO will solve all these problems. If you have devices which support MU-MIMO you can expect to see a marked improvement, but even with this improvement, the underlying issue of physics still exists.
However, it’s not all doom and gloom in a recent study conducted by the University of Brescia in Italy, the results revealed that smart antenna technology is effectively dealing with co-channel issues. In some cases, smart antenna technology gives an average gain of 70% on aggregated throughput over standard access points in the same environment.