Wireless wave of change

This won’t be a gradual evolution. It is being driven by users and will be a fundamental change, similar to some of the other seismic shifts in computing such as the arrival of PCs, which freed users from the dominance of mainframes.

A key driver behind these developments is the introduction in 2013 of the new wireless standard 802.11ac, followed in the next couple of years by 802.11ad. These standards will fuel the increase in mobile devices and BYOD, leading to wireless becoming the status quo instead of wired.

There are many elements supporting this change. 4G with faster and bigger data-handling capabilities will drive expectations in the office. The growing deployment of mobile IPV6, with its significantly enhanced capabilities, enables better roaming. Cloud and virtualisation shift both the perception and the very nature of company boundaries, making mobility even more relevant.

The real dilemma is how do you secure, implement and manage what you don’t know? Already developments such as learning apps, Google Glass, payments from mobiles, Tizan 2.1 (multi-device operating system) and CloudOn (which allows users to run business apps on their mobile in the cloud) are all throwing up new areas to be defined and incorporated into security policies. Over the next few years, there will be many more innovations that will directly impact organisational structures and security.

One major challenge for IT managers is how to navigate their way through a fluid and fast-evolving situation where network infrastructures are changing rapidly and where it’s very hard to predict what the changes will be.

Questions arising include how to develop the network so users can get the best productivity and other benefits from existing and new mobile devices. How do you go about moving to wireless in a cost-effective way, with the least disruption to the business? How do you track and manage the growing number of mobile devices? How do you maintain control of the network? And how do you keep the network secure in this rapidly changing environment?

The move to wireless
The new wireless standard 802.11ac provides initial WLAN throughput of at least 1Gbps and up to 7Gbps in the future. 802.11ad, with multi Gbps throughput, will provide up to 7Gbps when it is ratified and introduced. And 4G will provide up to 100 Mbps mobile. This gives the potential for radically improved wi fi performance over what is available in the workplace today.

Many wireless deployments to date have been tactical, with more access points added, often unstructured, to meet increasing user demand or deal with cold spots. Usually, they have been neither fully pervasive nor capable of handling multi-media, high-volume and high-density traffic. Of course, they are based on the higher range of the old 2.4 GHz access points.

802.11ac will deliver the unfulfilled promise of 802.11n, but with a focus on 5GHz rather than 2.4GHz. With 5GHz providing shorter range but higher throughput, existing access point (AP) – based systems will be inadequate for the new requirements.

Migrating to 802.11ac will require entirely new APs, new antennas, upgraded or replaced controllers and new switches or power over ethernet (PoE) injectors. Similar to the evolution of 802.11n, there will be multiple versions and phases of 802.11ac. For some organisations, this will mean a rolling deployment, with the associated configuration and security risks.

An increasingly popular alternative to the AP approach is the modular array approach. With this method, an array can hold multiple, directionally tuneable APs. Unlike traditional broadcasting, directional focus minimises interference and enables clear control over geo overspill.

This is particularly relevant given the challenges that 5GHz and beyond will create for the old AP-based approach to coverage. With 2.4GHz, providing more coverage typically involves adding more APs. However, that has been shown to be increasingly self-limiting because interference between APs reduces coverage, rather than increasing it.

A major benefit of an array-based or directional-based approach is that it can be easier to upgrade as traffic usage and capacity evolve, allowing companies to react swiftly to changing circumstances. Key to success in adopting or extending wireless networks will be deployment pre-planning, risk assessment and determining the applicable policies.