The Future of Wi-Fi Networks

Michael Vizard

The initial deployment of wireless networks in the enterprise could best be described as a convenience that IT organizations in many cases grudgingly deployed. They were more trouble to manage than any of the perceived productivity benefits were worth.

But like any corporate animal, IT executives see popularity with end users as a key to job security. So often against their better technical judgment, the wireless network was deployed. Unfortunately, coverage was often spotty so instead of complaining about no wireless network, users complained about how poor the wireless network service was.

The arrival of 802.11n wireless networks has done a lot to mitigate many of these coverage issues in terms of available bandwidth. But demand for wireless networking continues to increase with each successive wave of smartphone and tablet PC that comes to market. So IT organizations are under more pressure than ever to provide wireless networking services. The wireless network is rapidly becoming the primary network of the enterprise as opposed to a secondary network that IT organizations could treat accordingly.

IT organizations are discovering the importance of making sure that each channel on the network now actually runs at 5.5 Ghz, versus the 2.4 Ghz settings that are used in most homes. This is important because not only does this increase the available bandwidth, it also reduces radio interference from devices such as microwave ovens.

Xirrus CEO Dirk Gates says that as wireless networking evolves, we'll eventually see channels of 60GHz and beyond that will give every user what amounts to their own personal slice of the Internet over a wireless network.

But there's a fair amount of time between then and now, and demand for wireless access is increasing precipitously. What's required, said Gates, is a new approach to wireless networking that makes it easier to aggregate access points in a way that provides more coverage while being simpler to manage.

Gates says those goals define the company's approach to its Wi-Fi Array, which gives customers the option as to how much management intelligence they want to place where on the network. Today's networks, for example, rely heavily on controllers to manage the network. But in the future, the controller is going to become a bottleneck in network bandwidth. IT organizations, said Gates, need a wireless network architecture that is flexible enough to evolve as bandwidth requirements change.

Many of those changes will not only be forced by the number of devices on the wireless network, but also the rise of voice and video applications that will demand bandwidth and are latency sensitive. And to make matters a more interesting, much of the traffic on these wireless networks is going to be encrypted.

The wireless networks of tomorrow are going to require people that are trained to understand the nuances of the radio signals that corporate networks rely on. Unfortunately, most IT organizations tend to think of a wireless access point as something to be deployed and then forgotten, at least until end users start calling for their heads.

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