In 2008, the enterprise wireless LAN will be reinvented, at least for those enterprises where mobility is a requirement rather than a convenience.
Driving the change is the arrival of WLAN products based on the draft 2 IEEE 802.11n standard, which enterprises have already started to factor into their wireless plans. Some companies looking at large-scale deployments or updates of WLANs over the next 12 months are seriously weighing the use of 11n products, which promise data rates of 300Mbps and throughput of 150 to 180Mbps.
The contrast with conventional WLAN gear, with a maximum data rate of 54Mbps and throughput of less than half that, is so dramatic that at least some enterprises are willing to pay a premium for 11n gear, and adopt a not-quite-standard technology on the assumption that any changes in the 11n standard can be dealt with via software updates.
A summer 2007 survey of 195 IT professionals, by WLAN vendor Colubris, found that 44 per cent planned eventually to deploy 11n and that one-third of them thought 11n could replace wired Ethernet for client connectivity.
Just as important as greater throughput is greater reliability and consistency in connectivity and performance, due in part to 11n's multiple antenna technology called multiple input multiple output (MIMO). For the first time, 11n makes feasible the idea of confidently relying on the WLAN as the primary means of client access to the network.
Still, there are plenty of issues still to wrestle with. The adoption of 11n will in a few cases force enterprises to beef up their edge switches to support Gigabit Ethernet. To get the full benefit of 11n capacity, they may have to upgrade existing power-over-Ethernet infrastructures to the new 802.3at standard, barely entering the market at the close of 2007. WLAN management software from some vendors may be lagging behind the hardware rollouts, a troubling shortcoming at least in the short term.
So far, higher education seems to be leading the way in 11n adoption. Morrisville State College in rural New York created the first large-scale 11n deployment in October with about 800 access points from Meru Networks. Shortly after, Carnegie Mellon University announced a huge upgrade to its ageing campus WLAN. It plans to deploy about 3,000 11n access points from both Aruba Networks and Xirrus during 2008.
The Xirrus 11n WLAN "arrays" (which combine in one unit multiple access points, a switch, and the vendor's special sectorised directional antenna) are so new that the university is one of the beta test sites.
Overall, enterprise IT managers adopting 11n will have to be much more systematic, thorough, and proactive in monitoring and managing the WLAN as a mission-critical net resource.
WLAN vendors surprised the industry with announcements starting in spring 2007 of wireless access points and controllers implementing the draft standard. By the end of 2007, nearly all WLAN vendors had introduced or announced 11n products, including Meru, Bluesocket, Aruba Networks, Xirrus and Cisco. And the Wi-Fi Alliance was ready by summer of 2007 to begin product interoperability testing based on the draft. Both decisions broke with long-standing practice, and both were bets that enterprise IT professionals would be willing to make a similar break.
Some will, according to analysts. Burton Group analyst Paul DeBeasi argued in a provocative report that 11n products were "good enough" in terms of shared throughput, jitter, latency and other criteria to serve as the main means of client access to the net for the vast majority of business users. The critical question is: How important is mobility to a given enterprise? If the importance is high, DeBeasi says, 11n provides all the performance and capability that most users need for most applications.