Businesses Must Balance Great Gains of 802.11n Against Drawbacks

Carl Weinschenk

802.11n products -- or at least the pre-standard versions that are flooding the market -- are an increasing factor in businesses. Enterprise planners and those who wear that hat at smaller organizations must carefully consider whether to jump at the new platform or wait until standards are promulgated.


A good sense of the landscape can be gained from this interesting review of four Draft 802.11n routers at Ars Technica. The writer tested in a real-world environment -- his home.


The first device assessed is the Netgear Rangemax. The writer found pros (hidden antenna, easy setup and adjustment and low price) and cons (speed can dip below 802.11g, works better with Linksys notebook card, difficult to upgrade firmware and no true quality of service support).


The second device tested was the D-Link DIR-655. Pros include fair pricing, "fantastic" speed, satisfactory bundled software for beginnings, options for advanced users, and ability to configure QoS. The cons were quick throughput drop-off when barriers are reached and misleading "storage" label.


Last up was the Linksys Wireless-N Gigabit Router with Storage Link. It had three pros: best overall Transport Control Protocol (TCP) speed, ability to configure QoS, and storage link for quick storage. The cons were bad user datagram protocol (UDP) performance and reliability issues.


The review ends with some technical discussion of interference issues. It's very relevant, simply because the ability of 802.11n gear to play nicely with other devices will go a long way to determining if it's a good idea to deploy them. The writer concludes that 802.11n is the way to go if the speed and/or distance boosts are badly needed. If 802.11g still gets the job done, however, the reviewer suggests waiting until official standards are set. This Network Computing piece suggests that the reviewer is not alone in that conclusion.


Those three devices, of course, are but the tip of a pretty big iceberg, judging from a report from the Burton Group that says 802.11n will be the linchpin of a "rapid market shift" from wired to wireless networks. Data center networks and switch trunks will continue to use wired Ethernet, but wireless will predominate as a local-area network connectivity technology. This vnunet.com piece lays out seven conditions in the enterprise (such as "when the number of laptop users is growing" and "when the enterprise uses mobile applications") that Burton says makes the transition to 802.11n advisable.


Embedded.com into far more depth on the interference issues raised in the Ars Technica piece. The problem is that many pre-standard 802.11n devices operate in the crowded 2.4 GHz spectrum space. To attain the higher bandwidth, the devices use comparatively wide 40 MHz channelization. More power is used to achieve the distance gains. Both of these tendencies cause problems with other devices working in that spectrum slot. The story -- which is quite technical and is most appropriate for IT planners -- deals with the ramifications of these important issues.


For Bored Mindz provides a tremendous amount of information about 802.11n. The first nugget is that the author claims there are 71 802.11n-compatible products in the field. A link to a Wi-Fi Alliance listing is included. (It appears that seven or eight items were added since the blog was posted.) The piece offers a graphic defining 802.11n Draft 2.0 including the feature, an explanation of what it is and whether it is mandatory. There is a comparative speed chart mapping 802.11n versus 802.11g at various distances. Finally, a graphic indicates the speed of eight draft 802.11n products at various distances.


The takeaway from all this is that the decision-making process for businesses is not as simple as seeing the greater speed and reach and jumping in. Potential users must understand that conflicts with existing gear may occur. If a decision is made to go ahead with 802.11n deployments, very careful and complete planning is necessary.

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