How to Prepare Your Network for 802.11ax

Wi-Fi in the enterprise continues to grow, both in the number of devices connected and in the volume of information transmitted. What was once a technology designed for periodic use has become a 24/7 necessity as workers require the ability to use any application regardless of where they are -- and that's not even to mention the Internet of Things (IoT), which has hit businesses like a massive wave, adding an order of magnitude more devices. Make no mistake, Wi-Fi is now mission critical.

The networking industry has responded accordingly, with new Wi-Fi standards coming every couple of years. We now stand on the precipice of the biggest change to Wi-Fi, with 802.11ax due to be ratified in early 2019 and pre-standard products already available from some vendors. 802.11ax is fundamentally different from previous versions, which primarily addressed speed. It will finally make gigabit wireless a reality, but also offer better throughput and improved battery life for client devices.

Lissa Hollinger, Aruba

All businesses should have the new standard on their technology roadmaps, but knowing when to deploy and how to prepare can be a bit of mystery. To get some guidance on how to put a plan in place, I interviewed Lissa Hollinger, VP of portfolio marketing at Aruba, a Hewlett Packard Enterprise company. The following is an edited version of our conversation.

Lissa, there's lots of noise around 802.11ax right now. What can you tell me about the current status of the market?

Global demand for 802.11ax isn't expected to ramp up until well into 2019 as there currently aren't any 802.11ax client devices available. We expect the Wi-Fi Alliance (WFA) certification program to launch sometime in the second half of 2019. As you mentioned, there's a lot of noise around 802.11ax with a couple of vendors shipping 802.11ax products, and others making announcements. That said, the current chipsets aren't production-ready -- they lack the full features that the 802.11ax standard will deliver and the firmware isn't stable.

So, are you saying that enterprises shouldn't make the move to 802.11ax with the pre-standard products?

Aruba has elected to take a conservative approach in bringing 802.11ax to market to ensure that the 802.11ax chipsets and drivers are mature, fully tested, and available in volume, which we expect will be the end of CYQ4 2018. To minimize deployment risk, we recommend deferring the transition to 802.11ax until the solutions are hardened. However, customers must decide at their own discretion how much risk they're willing to assume.

If enterprises are interested in 802.11ax, what should they be doing now?

The most important thing they can do at this time is look at a potential 802.11ax deployment holistically and keep the following factors in mind when considering whether to upgrade:

  • Access points -- To ensure a successful deployment, we recommend that organizations consider fully-tested 802.11ax access points that will be WFA-compliant and chipsets that are using release-quality firmware from the chipset vendors.
  • Security -- To allow IT to respond proactively to today's advanced cyber threats, an enterprise security framework must provide security and IT teams with: an integrated way to gain visibility and control; technologies such as machine learning and artificial intelligence to respond to threats automatically; the latest security standards, such as WPA3; and the right tools to apply the same policy to devices and clients no matter how they connect to the network, either wired or wireless
  • Smart RF planning -- As clients roam, IT must be able to monitor and automatically match them to the right radio on the right access point. By eliminating the 'sticky client' issue, organizations can boost overall WLAN performance and deliver consistent, predictable performance to every client. As more client devices enter the market and organizations face higher and higher density levels on the network, automated RF optimization tools that utilize machine learning intelligence to set optimal channel, channel width, and power planning are crucial for maximizing capacity across the entire network.
  • Efficient power saving -- We know that APs are becoming more power hungry as they have more advanced features and higher performance. So, vendors should provide the right tools for the system to become more power efficient. For example, how can we be more efficient and draw less power for access points that aren't being fully utilized during downtimes?

As we get closer to the availability of standards-based products, what should network professionals be thinking about as they plan for deployment?

We recommend that organizations evaluate their overall network infrastructure to ensure that it's equipped to support and take full advantage of the capabilities that 802.11ax will deliver. They should plan for:

  • Power -- As the industry enhances the features in 802.11ax access points, we'll be pushing the power envelope from the current PoE 802.11at to the 802.11bt requirement. So, when planning for 802.11ax, organizations must think about how they're going to power their new access points. Will they need new switches with 802.3bt? Or, can the new access point have certain capabilities to respond to this power need?
  • IoT -- One of the best use cases of 802.11ax is IoT device connectivity. But when you're planning for IoT, it's best to support other IoT connection standards, such as Zigbee and Bluetooth, in addition to Wi-Fi.
  • Multi-gig -- When you deploy 802.11ax access points, you'll be transmitting data at a rate of 1 Gbps. However, one bottleneck remains that could prevent many businesses from capitalizing on these advancements -- the existing cabling infrastructure and the speed of the switch port that the access point connects to. So, when you're thinking about how to prepare your network for 802.11ax, consider how you can save your existing cabling and still increase your network capacity.

Any final words for our readers?

Over the next few months IT professionals are going to see a flurry of announcements from the vendor community regarding 802.11ax. It's extremely important that buyers don't just accept the vendors' words at face value. Wi-Fi is very important and businesses should do their homework to ensure that what they buy will offer the best performance and security.

Author's note: The 802.11ax standard is expected to be ratified in 2019 with the WFA certification process being finalized later this year. There are commercially available products available now but these should be considered pre-standard. It appears Aruba's approach is to not wait until ratification to release product, but instead wait until process is finalized and then release products that follow the committed standard.

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