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802.11ac And WiGig: Making The Right Call With New Wi-Fi Standards

802.11ac And WiGig: Making The Right Call With New Wi-Fi Standards

With the release of Wave 1 802.11ac products and WiGig on the horizon, is now the right time to upgrade your wireless network or is it better to wait? Here's what you need to know to understand the current and future wireless standards to help you figure out the right deployment timeline for your enterprise's WiFi needs.
If you've been content to cruise along with an 802.11n network in place, then the new and emerging wireless standards might come as a mild shock. For starters, there's 802.11ac, which subdivides into Wave 1 (available now) and Wave 2 (available later) to distinguish between networking equipment for the early adopters and for those who prefer (and can afford) more mature hardware. The theoretical maximum throughput of Wave 1 802.11ac is 1.3Gbps. Wave 2 will double this, making 802.11n's conventional 300 Mbps spec seem downright paltry.

Then there's 802.11ad, commonly referred to as "WiGig," and that standard is even faster (7 Gbps) -- as in, "at long last, true Gigabit speeds over the air are finally possible." Now, there isn't a self-respecting geek on the planet who doesn't want a faster wireless network, but most of those geeks would make lousy IT managers. Obviously, there's more to upgrading your network than throwing your budget at whatever is fastest.

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The first wave of 802.11ac hardware is here now; the second wave is about a year away. As for WiGig, some products have trickled out, but "coming soon" is an appropriate release date. What's best for your enterprise? As always, it depends.

802.11ac: Catch The Wave

For starters, 802.11ac "Wave 1" and "Wave 2" aren't true technical terms. In practice, Wave 1 hardware is analogous to the Draft-N equipment we saw a few years ago for the 802.11n standard. Like the early N equipment, 802.11ac Wave 1 hardware delivers some, but not all, of the capabilities laid on in the IEEE 802.11ac spec. (However, unlike "Pre-N" gear, today's Wave 1 equipment will be fully functional with next-gen Wave 2 parts.) As the tech matures, we'll see 11ac equipment with more robust chipsets shipping under the Wave 2 banner. Some vendor representatives, including Ruckus technical marketing manager Marcus Burton, believe that enterprises are better off waiting until Wave 2 products hit the market in force.

"The jump from 802.11a/g to 802.11n was monumental," Burton says. "It changed Wi-Fi and what it could do for enterprises. [802.11ac] is a little bit more like an evolution, or next step, to Wi-Fi, but not quite the same revolution that 11n was."

Burton did highlight a few advantages 11ac Wave 1 products have over their 11n "ancestors," including 80MHz channels and 256-QAM. The wider 80MHz channels on an 11ac access point are beneficial when you also deploy 11ac clients to take full advantage. Early 11ac products go from 11n's 64-QAM to 256-QAM to further increase performance. Theoretically, 256-QAM can improve throughput by 33 percent over 64-QAM.

What helps make 256-QAM’s higher modulation possible is 11ac’s more extensive use of beamforming. The signal processing technique is technically available in 11n products, but, because it wasn’t an official part of the IEEE specification, it was an interoperability nightmare. 802.11ac fixes this confounding issue so that you should be able to implement beamforming between networking products from competing manufacturers.

There are good reasons to transition to an 11ac environment today. Say what you will about theoretical vs. real-world throughput, the performance increase of 11ac over 11n is real and obvious in most real world conditions. New 802.11ac APs are backward-compatible with 802.11n clients, provided the clients are set to operate on the 5 GHz band, and those 802.11n clients should see some performance gains moving to 11ac APs. If your particular enterprise consists of a lot of mobile clients, you might be surprised to learn that there are already a great deal of devices with 11ac radios. A multitude of notebooks, both PC and Mac, support 802.11ac, as do Samsung’s Galaxy S4 and S5 smartphones. The smart money’s on Apple’s iPhone 6 to be 11ac-compatible, as well. These devices would all benefit to varying degrees in an 802.11ac environment.

One of the reasons, if not the biggest reason, people like Burton are preaching patience is that 802.11ac Wave 2 products will support multi-user MIMO, or MU-MIMO. Most consider this the holy grail of 802.11ac and recommend waiting to deploy 11ac networking hardware for this reason alone. MU-MIMO lets a base station transmit to multiple clients (up to four) at the same time, whereas APs prior to 11ac Wave 2 could only transmit to one client. Giving multiple clients simultaneous access to the same channel should be a boon to any enterprise that relies heavily on its wireless network, although MU-MIMO only works on the downstream and requires both client and base station to have 11ac Wave 2 technology.

"It's a capacity booster," Burton said. "Actually perfecting that in the real world and making it useful is the big driver for Wave 2."

Just as Wave 1 made the move to 80 MHz channels, Wave 2 jumps up to 160 MHz (80 MHz + 80 MHz) bonded channels. Now, theoretically this is great for bandwidth, but in the wireless networking lexicon, “theoretically” is practically a dirty word. Transmitting at 160 MHz requires a clear channel that’s unlikely to exist in an enterprise environment. Realistically, APs will operate at 80MHz or 40MHz for the foreseeable future, and, because of this, there’s a possibility that manufacturers may choose not to implement a 160 MHz channel in their hardware, even what would be considered Wave 2.

Anyone who’s been burned by the lofty promises of previous wireless standards, like 802.11n’s purported support for beamforming, knows that pinning hopes on yet-to-implemented technologies doesn't always pay off. And we’re all familiar with the “use it or lose it” fine print that’s so often appended to IT budgets. If you’ve received a “now or never” ultimatum about upgrading your enterprise’s wireless network, you will see gains by deploying 11ac equipment now, and your 11n clients should be interoperable with new APs.

If you can afford to play the waiting game for Wave 2, can you play an even longer game and hold out for WiGig? Should you?