Three Spatial Streams: The Good, Bad, and Ugly

Three Spatial Streams: The Good, Bad, and Ugly

By CWNP On 04/05/2011 - 8 Comments

To date, three enterprise vendors (Aruba, HP, Meraki) have announced new three spatial stream APs (3x3:3), and others will follow. The progress of three spatial streams looks really good on paper, where our maximum throughput increases by 50%. It’s a marketing dream come true. But, what’s the reality? What are the real-world gains, and how important is the third spatial stream?

If you pose those questions to the three vendors currently offering the products, you may get a response that adamantly favors three spatial streams. If you ask a competitor, its significance may be downplayed a bit.
Functional Range
Spatial multiplexing is an RF technology performed in the baseband and radio chipset, then transmitted onto the wireless medium (WM). For it to work properly, the wireless channel between the transmitter and receiver must be “clean” and each of the spatial streams (SSs) must be received properly or the SS combination process at the receiver will be error laden. Each additional spatial stream increases the RF complexity and likelihood of errors, requiring greater SNR and signal diversity at the receiver for reliable use. This is a significant limitation.
Unfortunately, the technology in current 802.11 chipsets is not capable of reliably supporting three spatial streams across a typical AP’s entire cell. That being the case, you can think of a three spatial stream AP as having three “rings” of service. The inner ring (best SNR) may yield three spatial stream performance. The middle ring may yield two spatial stream performance. The outside ring can only support a single spatial stream. The illustration below may help. The actual range of each spatial stream will vary for each vendor and environment.

Client Device Considerations
With such a diverse set of client devices in the enterprise today, it is not surprising that many devices do not yet support three spatial streams. Many mobile devices are not even 802.11n, and many others are still only a single spatial stream. The client device engineering process requires tradeoffs between competing needs:
  • High performance
  • Long battery life
  • Low cost
Similar to the classic maxim, choose two. :) Performance is often the area of greatest compromise.
Even though there are very few clients that support three spatial streams today, many more will support it in the months and years to come. In the enterprise WLAN industry, the infrastructure products usually implement the latest features first, especially when they are power-demanding features. Similarly, the infrastructure often reflects a greater cost investment and longer shelf life. With that in mind, the best total-cost of ownership MAY be obtained by choosing the most future proof technologies available today.
Further, it may be true that only a small percentage of devices support three streams today, but for what percentage of your network’s traffic are these devices responsible? What about a year from now? The percentage of data is a more important metric than the percentage of devices.
Network Utilization
Like any technology, the value of three spatial streams is relative to the business driver for the WLAN. For example, WLANs deployed for cellular offload won’t see any benefit if the client population is comprised of only mobile devices. Similarly, low bandwidth applications, such as those common in warehouse and manufacturing environments, have no need for a third spatial stream. Hospitality is similar, where the WAN is the bottleneck for most guest applications. Conversely, carpeted offices with wire-replacement WLANs will see gains in proportion to the devices (and, again, percentage of traffic) using three spatial streams. Higher education is another vertical with bandwidth-hungry users and moderate (though rising) populations of three SS capable clients. The use case is key.
As we look at the improvements in raw PHY rates, it is important to realize that these data rates are only a small part of WLAN efficiency. The protocol itself accounts for a far greater percentage of overhead than the PHY rate alone. No less, the fact remains that higher PHY rates allow stations to get on and off the wireless medium quicker than devices with lower PHY rates, leaving more airtime for everyone else. Airtime fairness features also become more important as the variance in client connectivity rates continue to grow.
Architecture and Hardware
As manufacturers actualize the gains of 802.11n, we have to continue to evaluate the long-term viability of controller-based architectures with centralized forwarding. Almost all vendors are (or have already) embracing this shift in data plane decentralization. The notable exception thus far is Cisco, whose large customer base and marketing focus is built on centralized data forwarding. But, to stay competitive, they will likely shift as well. I believe that it’s an inevitability for all vendors.
In addition to architecture, AP hardware becomes more important too. With real-world throughput around 230+ Mbps per radio, AP processor and memory components must be adequately designed to apply QoS, firewall, and forwarding policies at the edge (if forwarding is to be done there).
Triple stream APs are state of the art today and they demand a few hundred dollar list price premium. Most WLANs are not heavily utilized and can get by just fine without three spatial streams. As with anything related to WLAN design, the client applications—current and future—must be factored into the infrastructure selection process. For some, the price premium now may be worth it for longer life and better TCO.
Final Comments and Suggestions (FCS)
Three spatial stream APs are touted by some to be very significant. By others, its importance is poo-poo’d as inconsequential. I find myself right in the middle. If we’re honest, it’s not going to change your Wi-Fi experience in any major way today; but it is yet another helpful checkpoint along the path to wire-replacement. In most environments, the price premium is not and will not be worth it in the foreseeable future. For others, a 50% data rate gain (with range limitations) is significant enough to warrant a second, or first, look. Tagged with: HP, aruba, Meraki, spatial multiplexing, 3x3:3, spatial streams, range

8 Responses to Three Spatial Streams: The Good, Bad, and Ugly

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04/06/2011 at 02:23am
That is a very insightful blog post. Especially like the point you make about range and spatial streams.
After reading this post, I can safely say that you are the "Clint Eastwood" of Wi-Fi.

04/05/2011 at 19:24pm
Ironic and Insightful...I just purchased three of these early this morning are our brain ways wirelessly connected or what ?

04/05/2011 at 16:38pm
Hi Marcus,
Loved the post. Nice work. I find myself in the middle too.
Some things that I thought of while reading this article were:
1) Each generation of hardware gets significantly better. It's particularly important to consider the higher quality of the radios, power amps, and other radio-related components. This means better AP radio sensitivity, better AP output power on band edge channels, etc. These can add a meaningful improvement to the overall performance and price equation through less APs required, better throughput at range, and better reception (meaning less reTx).
2) By FAR, the greatest number of devices on enterprise networks now are smart phones, which are often only capable of 1SS. With this as the case, 3SS becomes less a part of the overall equation of "what's really important." Please don't misunderstand - I'm in favor of 3SS everywhere (more is better, right?) - but I believe that application/device intelligence, deployment flexibility, manageability, and things like that are even more important than raw speed.
3) 3SS infrastructures are going to have a last quite a while in the enterprise. I foresee it being some time before 11ac takes the stage, front and center, in the enterprise. That's my opinion anyway. :) I believe that by the time 11ac hits prime time, most of the clients that will ever be capable of 3SS will be doing 3SS, yet over half of the clients on the network will still be 1SS or 2SS because of battery life or a lack of need for more than 1SS.
Again, very nice post.

04/05/2011 at 15:56pm
It would be interesting to learn about the techniques these vendors use for stream isolation. With 2 spatial streams, things are easy: you can have vertically and horizontally polarized streams and get nearly perfect isolation. Handling 3 streams with decent isolation is a challenge. Maybe another post in the future?

04/05/2011 at 14:26pm
Thanks for the great feedback! I considered adding a "warning" about the concentric ring diagram, but I hoped my concept would be appreciated for what it is: a very simple illustration. :) Your words of caution of spot on.
Andrew, your point about speed vs. range/reliability is well said (as usual). I would only add that radio components are improving in quality as well, allowing for both speed and reliability/range improvements, though I agree that the implementation must ultimately choose to prioritize one of the two.

04/05/2011 at 14:14pm
Great write-up on this new technology. I agree that the use-cases are key to making a justification for this additional bandwidth.
Also, to comment on the coverage areas for different spatial streams, it is important to also remember that MIMO in general provides either 1) higher bandwidth at the same range as legacy equipment, or 2) longer range at similar data rates as legacy equipment. Therefore, the coverage areas more accurately have overlap and real-world clients might choose a different number of spatial streams or data rates based on frame error rates in addition to SNR. For example, clients may choose a 1 SS data rate where they are within range for a typical 2 SS rate, but RF conditions are more conducive to 1 SS. Just an example.
Ultimately, 2 SS data rates provide adequate bandwidth for almost all applications, even in high density areas. The cost justification to implement 3 SS products will be a tough sell if there is any uptick in price, and will likely boil down to better overall WLAN performance due to less airtime utilization, or a specific application that a customer feels they need the extra bandwidth.
Great post!
Andrew vonNagy
CWNE #84

Howard Higgins Says:
04/05/2011 at 13:48pm
I like the point you make about range, based on the numbers of streams. You explain range using concentric rings, but I would emphasize the assumptions regarding SNR further.
Comparing this to the concentric circles on Site Survey maps of old would be more accurate - and as we all know now, there are no perfect circles.
A geographical style contour map might make a clearer picture.
Thanks for the great article !

04/05/2011 at 11:07am
Hi Marcus,
Thanks for this insightful article about triple-stream MIMO. Ultimately, it's important to have the right expectation, though certainly this applies to 2x2:2 as well.
The concentric circle diagram helps illustrate your point, and the same diagram could be drawn for PHY data rates (assuming omnidirectional antennas, etc), even for single-stream APs.

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