2012 saw a huge growth in the use of wireless, fuelled by factors such as mobility, strong tablet sales, BYOD and the consumer deployment of devices which support the upcoming wireless standards, 802.11ac and 802.11ad.
2013 and beyond will see continuing growth in wireless networks, with a move in many organisations to wireless actually replacing wired networks. This move will create a sea of change in working practices and operational management.
The new wireless standard 802.11ac should be ratified in the second half of 2013 and will provide WLAN throughput of at least 1Gbps, first generation, and up to 7Gbps in the future. 802.11ad, with multi Gbps throughput, is likely to be ratified in 2014.
However, manufacturers are already delivering consumer devices designed to both these standards.
Home users are already getting the improved performance and user experience that these standards will deliver and are increasingly bringing these expectations into the office.
Most of today’s wireless implementations provide limited, rather than total coverage, with cold spots, performance limitations and access limitations. This contrasts unfavourably with the mobile environment increasingly experienced elsewhere.
This is not sustainable in the medium term. Mobility is an unstoppable wave and organisations need the increased productivity that mobile devices can bring.
The move to wireless raises many challenges and opportunities. Security is a significant challenge, raising a number of issues to be addressed, such as network access control, ID management, mobile device management, device remediation, intrusion prevention and management infrastructure. The key to success will be deployment pre-planning, risk assessment and determining the policies to apply.
The changes in wireless standards provide a key opportunity for strategic planning. Most wireless deployments have been tactical, with more access points added, often unstructured, to meet increasing user demand or to deal with cold spots.
802.11ac will deliver the unfulfilled promise of the previous standard 802.11n, but with a focus on the 5GHz rather than 2.4GHz unlicensed spectrum band.
With 5GHz providing shorter range, but higher throughput, existing access point (AP) based systems will be inadequate for the new requirements. As users increasingly have 5GHz devices, the old 2.4GHz APs will become obsolete. This gives organisations a one time opportunity to plan for a future working environment based on wireless, rather than wired LANs.
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.
To migrate this will require entirely new APs, new antennas, upgraded or replaced controllers, and new switches or Power over Ethernet injectors. There will be multiple versions and phases of 802.11ac, so AP-based organisations will need to budget for ongoing infrastructure upgrading and replacement.
An increasingly popular alternative to the AP approach (sometimes characterised as ‘breeding’) 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.
Changing work environment
Additionally, with the array-based approach, the APs can be slot-in cards, so they can be easily and inexpensively replaced or upgraded as traffic usage and capacity evolve.
We are at the beginning of a radical shift in the IT world. Mobility, BYOD, multi Gbps wireless and 4G are creating an unstoppable wave of change, fundamentally altering the working environment and creating some major challenges and opportunities for security and access.
The key beneficiaries will be those who recognise that this is a sea change and plan accordingly, rather than treat it as an evolutionary change and have to play catch up.
About the author: Ian Kilpatrick is chairman of international value added distributor Wick Hill Group plc, specialists in market development for secure IP infrastructure solutions and convergence.