Here's what to look for in 802.11ac enterprise gear and the currently available access points from Cisco, Aruba Networks/HPE, Avaya, Extreme Networks and Ruckus Wireless.
As with most technologies, the wireless LAN space continues to evolve at a brisk pace. The current IEEE wireless networking standard is 802.11ac, which offers considerable advantages over its predecessor, 802.11n. As of this writing, enterprise products offer rates up to 5,200 Mbps (Dual Radio) at the physical interfaces (although real-world tests may end up being about 60 to 70 percent of this), up to 160MHz channels, and 4x4 Multi-User Multiple Input Multiple Output (MU-MIMO) with support for up to 4 spacial streams.
There are a number of things that have progressed in the wireless landscape over the last year or so since more 802.11ac standard enterprise devices came to market. Most of the features available in the new WiFi standard are now in production and the question now is what to look for in 802.11ac enterprise gear and what to look forward to next.
802.11ac Wave 2 is currently in production by all of the major wireless vendors and most offer support for similar speeds, modulation and streams used. Most of the WiFi gear vendors have already implemented the following features into their products, but keep an eye out for how the various products differ in their support for the different features including:
- Beamforming (typically transmit)
- Multi-User Multiple Input Multiple Out (MU-MIMO), introduced with Wave 2
- Multi-gigabit backhaul
- Wireless intrusion protection
- Antenna options
Another very important thing to look for that differentiates each vendor's individual product lines is their support for spectrum analysis, noise reduction and channel management.
MORE: 802.11ac Access Points Compared
MORE: 802.11ac & WiGig: Making The Right Call With New WiFi Standards
What To Look For In 802.11ac Access Points
Let's take a closer look at some of the features you'll find in 802.11ac enterprise gear.
All of the WiFi vendors mentioned in the product comparison on page two support some form of beamforming. So what is beamforming? Well at a high level, Beamforming allows the transmitter and MIMO receiver to work together to achieve the best signal possible by using multiple antennas to transmit and receive signals. This is done in order to effectively increase the signal strength by attempting to prevent signals from cancelling each other out at the receiver.
This is accomplished through a number of different technical methods, the most simple (relatively) being the alteration of the signal gain and phase. Bi-directional beamforming takes this idea and optimizes it by having both the access points (AP) and the client support beamforming, this way the signal is not only being optimized from the AP to the client, but also from the client to the AP. However, some major wireless vendors have yet to implement it.
As with everything in business, the actual results that are provided by a given vendor's solution can differ significantly from what they promise. Make sure to take the time to test multiple vendors' products in the target environment to ensure the expected performance is achieved.
MU-MIMO (New In Wave 2)
One of the biggest positive changes that came with Wave 2 supported devices is in their support for Multi-User Multiple Input Multiple Out (MU-MIMO). While Wave 1 devices supported Single User MIMO (SU-MIMO), so have many 802.11n devices for some time.
The big change is the support for multiple conversations between different wireless clients at the same time. With SU-MIMO, the AP has to communicate with one device at a time (for very short amounts of time). With MU-MIMO, the AP can now simultaneously communicate with multiple devices, which greatly increases the usability of the wireless network.
One of the common issues for existing wireless deployments is that APs have been typically deployed using Power over Ethernet (PoE) using a single copper cable for backhaul. With earlier wireless implementations this wasn't a problem because the aggregate wireless throughput was always lower than the physical capabilities of that single cable. However, with the implementation of 802.11ac Wave 2 devices this is no longer true.
There are a few different solutions for this including NBASE-T and MGBASE-T. Both offer solutions that allow existing cabling (copper cables that don't support 10 Gigabit Ethernet) to stay where they are and now support rates of 2.5 or 5 Gbps, allowing companies to upgrade their wireless infrastructure without needing to upgrade their cabling infrastructure.
Another option may exist for certain deployments where multiple cables exist for each AP. In this case, it may be possible for a link aggregation solution to work to combine the throughput of multiple links. In these situations look for products that support IEEE 802.3ad (LACP).
However, keep in mind that this is an issue that will only exist for specific environments (high density). Inspect your environment to make sure that this is truly a problem before using it as a selection criteria.
Wireless Intrusion Protection
As with every other piece of networking equipment, security is very important. Most vendors support some type of wireless intrusion protection, typically including detection of rogue access points and clients. While this may be an add-on to some vendor's product lines, it should be a consideration in your 802.11ac product selection.
MORE: Wireless Security: Deploying WPA2-Enterprise
MORE: A Guide To Intrusion Detection & Prevention Systems (IDS/IPS)
In the world of wireless, one thing that can never be overlooked is the selection of available antennas for a specific product. Since the environment that a wireless network must work within is almost always different, the ability to adapt a solution to use multiple types of antennas to achieve good performance is vital.
Spectrum Analysis, Noise Reduction And Channel Management
Anyone who has ever implemented a wireless network is familiar with what noise can do to the availability and capability of a wireless network (is the microwave running?). Most of the vendors have their own features that are intended to reduce both the noise created by their solutions and external noise that affects their solutions. This is done through a combination of both active and passive noise environment detection. Based on the results from this added information, the signal can be modified to best meet the requirements of a specific environment.
Most of the 802.11ac solutions we list on page two support the ability to dynamically change the channel being used by each radio depending on this learned information. Some even offer the ability for a dual band radio to change from 2.4 to 5 or vice versa depending on the wireless demand and the current environmental conditions.
The next two steps coming to the wireless evolution are: the full implementation of the 802.11ac standard (also referenced in some places as Wave 3) and the eventual next standard 802.11ax.
802.11ac Full Implementation (Wave 3)
802.11ac Wave 3 is not the official name, but it is a familiar moniker that is used to talk about the full implementation of the 802.11ac standard. The implementation of Wave 2 comes up short against the specifications of the full implementation. The full implementation offers support for a maximum physical rate of around 6.9 Gbps (with a single radio) using 160 Mhz channels (or 80-80 Mhz non-contiguous channels), 256 QAM and 8 spacial streams.
Note: a physical line rate of 6.9 Gbps works out to about 4.5 Gbps of MAC throughput
The next version of the 802.11 standard is going to be 802.11ax. The standard is now in the process of being developed as this article is being written. Some of the things to look for are 10 Gbps wireless speeds, standard support for 1024 QAM (which is already supported in some consumer devices) and possibly (multi-user) multiple input, multiple output-orthogonal frequency division multiplexing (MIMO-OFDM).
What else is in store for 802.11ax? We'll keep an eye out for it and will update this article as more information is made available.
Now let's take a closer look at some of the top 802.11ac access points and how they compare. >> See: Top 802.11ac Access Points Compared