802.11n: Timing is Everything

Carl Weinschenk

It's always this way: Consumers see something they like, begin using it and, after a lag time, the technology gains acceptance at the enterprise level. That's not surprising, of course, since consumers and enterprise users are the same folks, just labeled at different times of their day. The real news would be if this didn't happen.


The same enterprise-chasing-consumer pattern is emerging in the world of 802.11n. In fact, unless somebody watches the topic like a hawk, it may be difficult to tell precisely where consumer use stops and enterprise use begins, since so many small businesses -- though ignorance, impatience or a desire to save money -- use off-the-shelf gear. This is done, in many cases, without the knowledge of the IT department.


This release from ABI Research describes a report analyzing announcements on enterprise-grade gear made recently by Cisco Systems, Trapeze Networks and Meru Networks.


The usual dynamics driving enterprise deployments of a new technology may be a bit fuzzier in this case, however, for a couple of interrelated reasons. The first is that at least some commentators suggest that the bandwidth provided by 802.11n is great enough to make possible deeper and more fundamental changes in how enterprises distribute data.


That's serious stuff, and is likely to make the second issue -- that a final standard has not yet been promulgated -- even more of a sticking point for those fussy IT folks. The bottom line is that enterprises have to carefully think through when the desire to use standards-based gear is outweighed by the benefits of nearer-term deployment of the equipment, because the switch may be strategic and permanent, as well as tactical.


In any case, things are heating up. PC World mentions two vendors who are looking at the corporate 802.11n business: Aruba and Colubris (it also mentions the three identified by ABI). Aruba, the piece says, is said to be preparing "draft N" access points (APs), including devices for remote offices and those capable of being team players in outdoor or indoor meshes. Commentary toward the end of the story suggests that vendors are showing products more to prove that they are familiar with the technology than to ring up big sales.


The move to 802.11n at the corporate level eventually could signal a more fundamental change than what APs to buy. ComputerWorld reports on comments and opinions of Burton Group analyst Paul DeBeasi. He suggests that the capacity possible with 801.11n deployed correctly could obviate the need for wired local-area networks (LANs). Though wired LANs still offer far more bandwidth, DeBeasi says that 801.11n will suffice for most users and that it offers a great asset -- mobility -- absent on LANs. The idea, the piece noted, has been greeted by great skepticism.


The potentially deep changes possible with 802.11n are evident in this report from eChannel Line, which is based on a survey of 300 responses of Webtorial subscribers. The piece proceeds on two tracks, both of which are interesting. The first element looks at the popularity of Wi-Fi in general. The takeaways are that Wi-Fi has been deployed widely by businesses, but that comparatively few employees actually have access. The second point is that older topologies -- featuring a centralized control scheme -- are favored. The third takeaway is that VoIP over Wi-Fi still is a question mark.


The piece then looks specifically at 802.11n. The primary goal of adding 802.11n will be to support collaboration (38 percent), to carry VoIP traffic (33 percent), to replace wired networks for stationary workers (31 percent), to act as wireless data aggregation tools (29 percent), to reduce APs (23 percent), to form backbones for internal media streaming (22 percent), and to facilitate location-specific applications (8 percent).


Numbers from the survey quoted in the story suggest that most companies will wait for a standard to be set before getting serious about deployments.


This Enteprise Mobile Matters post argues that vendors should stop waiting around for an 802.11n standard to be officially adopted and begin offering products that use the technology. They can support specific vertical applications and be put to other clever uses. This will jump-start the market and accelerate the adoption of a standard. The basic premise of the blogger simply is that nothing is gained by passively sitting back and waiting for a day in the indeterminate future when a market will suddenly appear. Instead, planting a stake in the ground now will bring 802.11n's benefits to users much more quickly.

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