802.11n is here -- sort of. It's the "sort of" that should make enterprises tread carefully.
Planners should be familiar with the story by now: The release of a true standard, with the seal of approval from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, isn't expected until 2009. However, the market is hot for a wireless approach that extends the speed and reach of the older versions of 802.11. This led the Wi-Fi Alliance to create a draft standard, against which many vendors are producing products.
This posting from Network Computing's Immersion center says three distinct camps for draft 802.11n have emerged. One uses the wireless networking standard to create wire-free networks (Ruckus Wireless, Aruba and Trapeze are mentioned specifically in this group). The second focus is to make existing links more reliable and predictable (Cisco) and the third is to extend coverage and eliminate dead spots (Cisco's Linksys). The blogger points out that none of the three approaches focuses expressly on increasing bandwidth or the number of simultaneous users.
The first inclination is to assume that the standard is all but set and that the final version will be more or less identical to that used today. Perhaps so. But companies that are thinking of deploying 802.11n in the enterprise should consider this TechWorld story. The details are a bit complex, but the bottom line is that more than a few smart engineers think the draft N standard will be liable to bandwidth limitations. The writer thinks it won't, but he spends a lot of space dissecting the issue.
Regardless, draft N gear is being deployed. ABI Research says small businesses and, in particular, health care, education and retail are key initial markets for 802.11n, according to this vnunet.com piece. In health care, physicans can use draft N during rounds, admissions, for electronics-records management and myriad other tasks. Video will be a particularly attractive application for education, this researcher adds.
The rather strange and strung out standards process has forced vendors to make tough choices on when to bring their products to market. Aruba Networks warns against using the draft gear. The potential problems include lack of flexibility in speed selection, immature client drivers and electricity demands that are too great for the power-over-Ethernet (PoE) approaches used to drive many APs. An AirMagnet executive added that the Draft N gear could interfere with adjacent 802.11a networks. Finally, the Aruba executive suggested that the throughput offered by the new gear may not be necessary for many office applications.
One sector that undoubtedly is happy to see 802.11n emerge -- however slowly -- is municipal Wi-Fi. Make no mistakes, this is a sector that needs some good news. Novarum's latest study, which is described in this MuniWireless story, suggests that 802.11n enables networks to operate smoothly where they either were silent or weak using older technology. The report said that using 802.11n clients or high-performance adopters and advanced antennas can make the municipal network as reliable as cellular data services.
It will be years before the roiling waters of 802.11n calm down. Until then, IT departments -- particularly those at enterprises -- must carefully assess the flexibility and performance of 802.11n products before they make their move.