802.11n: One Year Later

By  Kassandra Kania — September 03, 2010

It's been a year since IEEE's official ratification of the 802.11n standard, and once-cautious enterprises are following the lead of healthcare and educational institutions already taking advantage of the standard's improved data rates and ranges for wireless local area networks (WLANs).

While the recession is partly to blame for corporations dragging their heels, many enterprises were simply awaiting the final standard. "One problem for a lot of people was that the standard wasn't finished," says Craig Mathias, principal at Farpoint Group, an advisory firm specializing in wireless communications. "There was some concern that the official 802.11n organization would ultimately come up with a standard that would somehow render the draft specification incompatible with the final standard." As it turned out, the Wi-Fi Alliance, which certifies 802.11 products for interoperability, allayed any fears with a guarantee of backward compatibility with 802.11a/b/g networks. 

"The 802.11n equipment operates in the 2.4 or 5 GHz frequencies," explains Sarah Morris, senior marketing manager for the Wi-Fi Alliance. "So an old 802.11g client, for example, can still connect to and operate with an 802.11n access point in 2.4 GHz. That means the standard does not instantly obsolete your equipment investment. It allows you to phase introduction of new equipment."

One of the major trends driving the increase in enterprise adoption of 802.11n is the proliferation of mobile handsets. According to ABI Research, worldwide sales of Wi-Fi-enabled handsets reached 205 million this year, up from 139 million in 2009. "Smartphones with Wi-Fi incorporated into them has been a powerful area of growth," notes Morris. "That level of mobility has had a big impact on the enterprise."

As Wi-Fi-enabled smartphones and tablets enter the enterprise space and companies transition to VoIP, network requirements are increasing. "Once you get maxed out on bandwidth, and you've got to upgrade or add more nodes, 802.11n is the natural progression," says Jim McGregor, chief technology strategist with In-Stat. The 802.11n standard improves data rates to between 100 Mbps and 300 Mbps, and the multiple-input multiple-output technology offers the potential for better coverage in some situations.

Philip Solis, an ABI Research analyst, notes that 802.11n is starting to pick up in handsets with single-stream 1x1 802.11n chipsets. These are similar to 802.11g chipsets, he says, but with an improved and more efficient MAC in the chipset.


The Need for Speed

The rise in 802.11n equipment sales supports the notion that enterprises are starting to invest in the latest duration of Wi-Fi. ABI Research puts the number of enterprise 802.11n access point (AP) shipments this year at 1.3 million--up from 0.6 million last year. Furthermore, 60% of Wi-Fi semiconductors going into equipment shipped this year will support 802.11n.

At Litchfield Hills Sotheby's International Realty in Washington Depot, CT, approximately 400 real estate agents rely on personal laptops to access the company's network--and many of them are investing in laptops with 802.11n capabilities.

"We're a luxury real estate company, and our environment is a mixture of company-owned computers and personal laptops," says Deryck Ali, IT director. "A lot of our agents buy the most sophisticated laptops, but our network infrastructure couldn't support them." As a result, the IT team was "going crazy with wireless issues," says Ali. "Agents called in about 10 times a day saying they couldn't connect, or speeds were too slow."

To improve network performance, Sotheby"s International migrated to 802.11n earlier this year, replacing its Linksys Wireless-G APs with Ruckus Wireless ZoneFlex APs throughout its 31 offices. Prior to the implementation, a two-story office building needed approximately four or five APs. By moving to 802.11n, Ali was able to reduce the number of APs to one or two per office, depending on the building"s age and infrastructure. The network is centrally managed via the Ruckus Wireless ZoneDirector.

"The process of upgrading was straightforward," says Ali, "and the system is easy to manage and configure." Since implementing 802.11n, agent complaints about wireless issues have been all but eliminated. "The signal strength is excellent, and we no longer have problems with interference," he says. "It's like night and day."


Efficiency and Beyond

Like Sotheby's International, companies deploying 802.11n have the realistic expectation that the new standard will improve efficiencies--and this is often the key driver for implementation. But, regardless of the initial impetus behind 802.11n, enterprises are realizing a host of unforeseen benefits as well.

One such company is Mascoma Savings Bank, which serves residents and businesses in New Hampshire and Vermont. When IEEE ratified 802.11n, Mascoma did not have a wireless solution. But the bank needed a security solution to detect and prevent rogue wireless devices from operating on or near the premises.

"[Deploying 802.11n] started out as a security function for us," says Chris Irish, VP of Information Technology. "Our goal was to implement a wireless security solution that would locate and mitigate wireless threats to the network in our operations center."

The company deployed the Cisco Unified Wireless Network, which included 16 Cisco Aironet APs and a Cisco Wireless Control System and Location Appliance in the bank's operations center. The APs are spread evenly throughout the four-story building. Mascoma also replaced its 2.4 GHz phones with Cisco Unified Wireless IP Phones.

The system alerts Irish if someone tries to plug in a rogue device or gain rogue access to the company's network. "I get an email that goes right down to a CAD drawing where I can see specifically the access point and which jack someone tried to plug a wireless device into," he says.

Although Mascoma introduced 802.11n strictly as a defensive mechanism, the benefits of the wireless network extend well beyond security. "We weren't really interested in using wireless access," admits Irish, "but we started realizing the benefits of it for a lot of other functions."

Mascoma's IT team no longer has to spend hours setting up Internet connectivity for each external auditor or employee from another branch. "We had to jump through hoops to get people set up," says Irish. "Every time we had a new auditor or lender come in, we'd have to liven up the network jack and get them connected as if we were setting up a new office. Now, what used to take two to three hours takes 5 minutes."

In addition to shorter setup times, enterprises reap the rewards of reduced costs. In-Stat's McGregor says that many enterprises deploying 802.11n start seeing the cost of maintaining their network go down. "If someone moves from one desk to another, you no longer have to switch the connector from one cubicle to another," he explains, "and the cost of maintaining those endpoints is significant."

Mascoma plans to expand coverage to all 19 banking facilities, which will greatly benefit senior leadership as well as lenders who have to meet with customers and move between branches while closing deals. "What started as a preventative measure turned into added value, convenience, and productivity for our employees, customers, and communities," says Irish. "Auditors absolutely love it, and federal regulators support this decision."

Concerns about Wi-Fi's security may hinder some companies from deploying 802.11n, but industry advisors insist they can rest assured. "In general, the security mechanisms built into 802.11n, particularly WPA2, are much more secure than wire and certainly more secure than their predecessors within 802.11," says Farpoint Group's Mathias. 


Migration Checklist

So what can enterprises do to ensure a smooth transition to 802.11n? First, choose a trusted vendor that specializes in solutions designed for the enterprise environment; and second, make sure you have a plan.

"Customers can take a phased approach to migration and do it on an incremental basis," advises Cisco's Chris Kozup, senior manager, Mobility Solutions. "Understand what your application and usage requirements are, and then fit the technology into those environments where you need it the most."

Mathias recommends that any enterprise purchasing an 802.11n solution write a formal RFP. "The RFP should be functional and performance based," he says. "It should not specify architecture. It's also important to think about where the organization will go with wireless over time. Sure, you're going to be interconnecting notebooks, but what about handsets? Are you going to be doing VoIP over Wi-Fi? Are you going to be doing video? Are there any unusual characteristics about the way you operate and the requirements you have that need to go in the RFP?"

Finally, enterprises need to consider how 802.11n is going to impact their wired network. The trend today, says Morris of the Wi-Fi Alliance, is toward more centrally managed networks, giving IT managers better visibility and control. Kozup suggests that companies migrating to 802.11n look at supporting access points with a gigabit Ethernet port and Power over Ethernet to power access points centrally.

And for enterprises postponing 802.11n deployments in the hopes that next year's products will be cheaper, faster, and better, Mathias says don't wait. "The benefits of WLAN are enormous," he says. "You're better off getting the economic and productivity benefits of 802.11n today. Once you go wireless, you don't go back."


Enterprises Embrace WLAN

In the past year since 802.11n was officially ratified by the IEEE Standards Board, the worldwide enterprise-class WLAN market is going strong. According to research by IDC, the WLAN market will gain momentum throughout the 2010, growing 23% from $1.7 billion in 2009 to a robust $2.1 billion in 2010. Growth in 802.11n deployments is accelerating in 2010, with 57.5% of all dependent access points (APs) being "n" based.

Enterprises continue to embrace wireless to increase efficiency and user productivity, shifting from a "nice-to-have" technology to an "essential-to-have" technology within the enterprise. "Unlike other markets that were ravaged by the recession, economic uncertainty and the structural causes of the downturn did not change the fundamental drivers for the growth of wireless in the enterprise," says Rohit Mehra, director, Enterprise Communications Infrastructure at IDC. "New applications, new devices, and new verticals are all contributing to the organic growth of Wi-Fi across all regions."

The proliferation of wireless devices on the network increases both the importance and pervasiveness of the enterprise wireless network. "More and more customers are demanding resilient, intelligent, scalable, and adaptive wireless network infrastructures. They are gearing up for widespread deployments across the board--not just in the carpeted areas of enterprise and in the education market segment, but in widespread applications across major verticals," Mehra says.



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