Beam Me Up

Beam Me Up

By CWNP On 10/09/2009 - 6 Comments

On September 11, there was a flurry of excitement about the final ratification of the 802.11n amendment.  We were all glad that the seven years' war was over.  It seemed like the industry was excited to see this completion, but the crickets chirped after the first day or two of headlines.  Within the first few weeks, there have been some important developments, and the next few months should be exciting as well.  Here are a few pseudo-random thoughts on how Wi-Fi will change in the aftermath of the 802.11n-Draft era. 

COST:  The first major change already happened a few weeks ago when Aruba announced the beginning of 802.11n as a commodity and the terminus for new 802.11a/g deployments.  Other vendors will follow suit, but I’d like to congratulate Aruba for making the first big price splash; this should draw fire from vendors with marketing campaigns that revolve around CAPEX, OPEX, ROI, TCO, and any other price-related abbreviation or acronym.  The use of 2x2 APs at significantly lower cost should also make 802.11n upgrades easier for SMBs and tight-budgeted enterprises.  With thoughtful and aggressive marketing about “right-sizing,” analysts predicting the decline of Ethernet as the primary access technology, and the demand for mobility ever rising, Wi-Fi is gaining tremendous momentum against competing network access technologies like Ethernet.  As vendors implement elegant and eye-catching solutions to common problems, more and more businesses will turn to Wi-Fi.  Economics 101—and Wal-Mart—tells us that when sales volumes increase, prices and margins usually decrease.  I hope this doesn’t mean I’ll be making minimum wage in a few years. 

TECHNOLOGY:  Exponential technological progress is an amazing thing.  At this point it doesn’t need stating, but 802.11n is a whole new technical tier for Wi-Fi.  Until now, vendors have been cautiously moving forward with implementations of these new technologies.  This gives us time to catch up a little by reading about the technology; however, full-bloom 802.11n is just around the corner so read fast.  Last week, the Wi-Fi Alliance announced the creation of new optional 802.11n certifications that will help distinguish between dual (2) or multiple (3) spatial stream devices.  These optional certifications require STBC and A-MPDU support.  I expect that this will motivate many vendors to include support for STBC.  A-MPDU is already close to ubiquitous.  The Wi-Fi Alliance also indicated a new amount of autonomy from the IEEE.  Everyone knows that the IEEE is a little slow, so the WFA is developing a new peer-to-peer specification of its own, which is likely targeted at home users for file and media sharing as well as printing.

Ruckus Wireless has a clever group of engineers and marketing pros that have already realized that beamforming has an intoxicating wow factor.  With Xirrus’ static beamforming and Cisco’s proprietary ClientLink, standards-based beamforming technology remains untapped.  When other technologies like spatial multiplexing and frame aggregation have more demonstrable gains in throughput, beamforming gains seem tough to quantify.  And, since standards-based beamforming requires client participation, it is no wonder that early supporters are using proprietary AP-based solutions that work with legacy clients and don’t require client support or awareness.  After all, clients are dumb.  Despite the logic behind proprietary beamforming to-date, I’m eager to see more TxBF in action, especially a Wi-Fi Alliance certification.  I suspect that proprietary solutions will have a nice long tenure as king, but I look forward to seeing the first standards-based implementation.  Either way, beamforming is just cool.  Please beam me up, someone.

EDUCATION:  The CWNP blog is really here for us to share our opinions, to teach, and to make a fuss about industry happenings.  However, we’d be amiss if we never made a shameless plug for our training arm by pointing out the fact that 802.11n presents a massive need for training.  There are countless new features, technologies, and implementation and design considerations that arise with 802.11n.  Just think, 802.11n introduces RF, PHY, and MAC enhancements.  If acronyms weren’t already bad, they have gotten considerably worse with 802.11n.  There is plenty to take in… MIMO, HT-OFDM, SM, TxBF, STBC, 40 MHz channels, SMPS, PSMP, MRC, SGI, CDC, A-MPDU, A-MSDU, RIFS, BlockAcks, dual-CTS, MCS, HT-SIG, PCO, and more.  Imagine trying to make an educated decision without knowing what this stuff is.  Or worse, imagine trying to deploy and optimally configure your network without a firm understanding of these concepts.  In addition to these new technologies, 802.11n troubleshooting is much more complex, design is considerably different than 802.11a/g, new features like airtime fairness are more important, and there are hoards of new considerations for backhaul, power, cabling, and the list goes on.       

The mission-criticality of and budgeting for wireless has never been so great, which means that administrators and decision makers need to understand the technology to make informed purchase decisions and then optimize the deployment.  A little education can go a long way.  With pervasive home Wi-Fi, users’ expectations for wireless performance are very high.  Marketing messages that tout the benefits and capabilities of wireless also raise the bar.  For this reason, the importance of training for wireless professionals simply can’t be overstated.  I’m just sayin…

COMPETITION:  With the flood of new 802.11n technologies, vendors have some important decisions regarding feature inclusion—and exclusion—in product roadmaps.  The quality and efficiency of engineering teams at different vendors will become more transparent as some products excel and others stagnate.  The ratification of 802.11n is akin to the discharge of a pistol blank at the beginning of a foot race, or the beginning of a heated presidential election; incumbent leaders defend their positions while emergent leaders—and messages—vie for distinction.  I wouldn’t anticipate drastic changes soon, but let’s not be surprised if the market share landscape is shaded with different vendor hues over the next two years.  As Honda says in their ad, “Mr. Opportunity is here, and he’s knockin.”    


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