A Quick History Lesson Regarding the Changing Landscape in Wireless
Over the course of time industry groups, such as the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and the Wi-Fi Alliance, have driven innovation and improvements for arguably one of the most used connectivity mediums in the world: the 802.11 framework, also known by the masses as “Wi-Fi”.
This framework has existed since 1997, and over the past 22 years revisions to the framework have been introduced. These revisions have brought efficiency in the utilization of spectrum, higher modulation rates, antenna configurations – all driving towards increases in wireless speed and throughput. IEEE 802.11ax standard is the latest, but not finalized, revision to the 802.11 framework and brings even higher modulation rates, more spatial streams and a doubling of data rates from the current published standard, 802.11ac, finalized in 2013.
Why it Matters
It’s no secret that bandwidth consumption continues to increase at exponential rates year over year. Naturally, wireless connectivity continues to become the primary medium of choice for end users. This is ultimately driven by the use of mobile devices.
As we discussed in Six Things to Consider when Deploying MFA, the end user experience often drives corporate adoption and industry developments. Subsequently, it becomes easier to understand the industry focus of outpacing an always on, wirelessly connected world. This highly-connected world also carries with it an increasingly intense expectation for faster speeds, higher bandwidth throughput, and a flawless experience.
What’s Under the Hood and How it Translates
Here are the primary improvements in the IEEE 802.11ax revision and how they relate to the changing wireless landscape:
- MU-MIMO – this was actually introduced in the 802.11ac revision from 2013. It enables an access point radio to carry out multiple wireless conversations at once. More specifically addressed in this feature is the ability to service clients that can talk at different speeds. Given 802.11 is contention based in nature, this was, and still is, a critical improvement to the wireless performance in a given RF cell. With the finalizations of 802.11ax, the uplink direction of MU-MIMO has been added.
- Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiple Access (OFDMA) – simply put, this is the physics in which data is modulated and carried between you and the access point radio. Like 802.11 in general, this version of OFDMA allows simultaneous conversations with multiple clients; or a teacher conversing with several students at once in a classroom setting.
- 160 MHz Channel Utilization – much like cars driving on roads, this equates to giving more space or lanes to an individual car (wireless client). If they’re capable of using the entire lane space you’re willing to give them, all the better. Providing a vehicle the entire highway for its own use allows for even greater vehicle speeds to be achieved; by the standard’s guidelines, up to and over 9Gbps. That’s serious.
- Target Wake Time (TWT) – as with most things, there’s a balance between faster technology and client usage. This improves wireless client sleep and wake times for both wireless network efficiency and longer battery device lifecycles.
- 1024-QAM – the density of the packed data traversing the spectrum in use between a wireless client and a radio. This is a 4x improvement from 802.11ac.
Considerations for Adoption
Yet, with all the fanfare around the changing wireless landscape, one often overlooked fundamental of 802.11, is proper RF design. Without a proper understanding and appreciation for the legacy RF fundamentals, the bells and whistles that are celebrated become irrelevant. It’s important to remember basic principles like selecting the proper antennae and using proper AP placement.
To compound this, the earlier technological improvements from OEM controller based solutions often times minimized or reduced the importance of RF fundamentals by “automating” things like cell sizing and channel selection to take care of some of the early obstacles of wireless design. While these features have greatly aided modern 802.11 networks and do work very well, it’s important to maintain an understanding of the past to truly take advantage of the innovative features being layered into the wireless medium both now and into the future.
In order to take advantage of the changing wireless landscape, your wireless devices must have the requisite hardware capabilities. As mentioned earlier, a balance between cutting edge technology and practicality has to be met. Antenna configurations in access points, laptops and especially smartphones often often dictate compatibility first. If your devices are not fully compatible it won’t preclude connectivity. But, you also cannot expect full 9Gbps+ as the standard calls for. The initial challenge for manufacturers is fitting the number of antennas required into a smartphone or laptop is not practical or cost effective.
As a result of this, the number of spatial streams supported then creates a glass ceiling or cap on your overall throughput and speed. When you think in terms of a contention based medium, or an access point playing traffic cop with multiple wireless clients, do each of the clients need 9Gbps+ per second to have a robust experience?
And, in the practical deployment of 802.11ax you shouldn’t be aspiring to do that, nor is it realistically feasible. While bandwidth goals on a per client basis will be unique to each customer’s network, that should be one of the starting points for engineering your next generation 802.11ax network.
There is always a cost premium to be cutting edge. When you weigh the current lack of capable wireless clients, you really must ask yourself, “is now the time?” However, given the timing, there are a couple scenarios where this might make sense for an organization:
- New construction – If you’re deploying a new building or space, and if it’s something you would be upgrading to within 1-2 years of occupying the space, it probably would make sense to start with cutting edge; particularly since 802.1ax will maintain backwards compatibility with previous revisions.
- Manufacturer incentives – Usually manufacturers have trade-in incentives to replace legacy hardware. These incentives are reflected as a trade-in credit, or an upfront discount on your purchase. If you run the math and it makes sense based on your hardware refresh cycle, you can future-proof your investments. It is important to remember that you may not have clients taking full advantage of the latest capabilities. But ultimately, you have started putting an infrastructure that will support the future advancements of technology within your ecosystem.
Now where do you take this? In most cases, you aren’t staring at an upcoming wireless refresh. That doesn’t mean you have to sit in idle until the time is right.
We believe in constant improvement, both as a personal mantra, but also as an approach to technical strategy. Some ideas to continue your journey towards excellence would include:
- Improve your strategy around your Network Access Controls
- Modernize your network design principles and stay in alignment with the current network trends
- Take steps to tighten your security posture with some basic systems and network related processes
All this talk of speeds and feeds leaving your head spinning? Our approach of aligning the proper technologies to your business hasn’t changed. We will gladly schedule time to discuss your use cases, goals, and current investments to ensure you are future proofing your network design for the needs of your business.