Air is the new wire

When it comes to networking in the modern era, wireless is the access method of choice. The technology offers users the convenience of gaining access to network resources when they’re on the move – within their own organisation, or someone else’s – including cafes, hotels, airport lounges, sports stadia and any other public place where a business has established a Wi-Fi hotspot.

This leads to greater productivity. Wireless access to the Internet and to a company’s key applications and resources not only helps staff members work smarter and faster, but also encourages collaboration, with the associated spin-off benefits of greater team-work.

Expandability has also been a wireless networking plus-point. However, with more users and more devices being added to existing networks – thanks in a large part to the Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) movement – organisations are now challenged to deal with scale and density issues.

As BYOD continues to evolve, the number of mobile devices and the diversity of those products attaching to Wi-Fi networks will also continue to grow. Mobile applications now demand more bandwidth, while video and voice applications have increased the demand for pervasive bandwidth.

Increasingly, individuals are carrying multiple wireless devices. The average corporate mobile device/user ratio is now approaching 2.7 (laptop, tablet, and/or smartphone). As a result, client congestion has become a problem for wireless networks.

Moreover, we can expect BYOD momentum to extend to wearable devices, and the resulting increase in demand to heavily impact wireless LANs from a global perspective.

The burgeoning acceptance of wireless is linked to its dispelling the myths surrounding speed and security. As one prominent industry commentator puts it “air is the new wire”. Wired networks are no longer faster or more secure than their wireless counterparts, thanks to the adoption of modern standards and technologies – in particular the rapid acceptance of products based on the IEEE 802.11ac standard, ratified earlier this year (2014).

The fifth generation of Wi-Fi standards, 802.11ac builds on IEEE 802.11n in the 5GHz spectrum. It improves data rates into the multi-Gigabit-per-second speeds, increases radio frequency (RF) bandwidth utilisation efficiency and supports denser access point deployments.

From a technical perspective, the 802.11ac specification delivers multi-station wireless network throughput of at least one gigabit per second and a single link throughput of at least 500 megabits per second (500 Mbit/s). This is accomplished by extending the air interface concepts embraced by 802.11n including wider RF bandwidth (up to 160 MHz), more MIMO (multiple-input and multiple-output) spatial streams (up to eight), downlink multi-user MIMO (up to four clients), and high-density modulation – up to 256-QAM (quadrature amplitude modulation).

Much as 802.11n gave early wireless network infrastructures a much needed boost in performance, 802.11ac will do the same for today’s generation of networks. The challenge, therefore, for 802.11ac is to meet today’s functional demands together with the explosive wireless market growth that is expected over the next two to five years.

In this light, we can expect devices with the 802.11ac specification to be commonplace within 12 months, with the one billion mark breached by 2016.

However, we should not be complacent. Any issues with Wi-Fi service delivery and performance can have a significantly negative impact on the quality of experience (QoE) of the user. It is also one of the most important considerations in the evolution of wireless networks.

As underlined by the Farpoint Group in its paper Wi-Fi and the Experience Economy, QoE may very well frame not only what’s next in the evolution of wireless networks, but what is relevant for global industrial economies going forward.

The Group points out that many organisations are considering the potential of the Experience Economy, a term which has its roots to Alvin Toffler’s classic Future Shock, published in 1971. It explains that future economic growth depends upon – and is even defined by – QoE, with IT organisations and vendors best able to address this requirement through non-disruptive wireless LAN scalability and density management technologies emerging as the new leaders.

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