The standard issue

The 802.11n standard is set to dramatically improve WiFi performance — the stumbling block is just when that standard is going to be ratified.

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By  Michele Howe Published  October 22, 2006

|~|84-WIFImain.jpg|~| Delays to the ratification of the new 802.11n standard have meant that, in many cases, vendors have had to delay introducing new WiFi products to market.|~|The new 802.11 standard, the 802.11n, has been heralded as the new wonder technology that will speed up WiFi. However, its own delivery is proving anything but speedy. A draft version of the standard was approved in January this year, with the second draft expected for autumn. But that second draft is now expected in January 2007, meaning final ratification of the standard will be most likely pushed back to the spring of the following year. Unsurprisingly, vendors are, in the main, far from happy about this. The new standard has been billed as a massive boon to wireless technology: it offers speeds in excess of 500Mbit/s, which is up to 50 times faster than the 802.11b and over ten times faster than the 802.11a or 802.11g, and will for the first time allow wireless networks to outperform wired networks — a great selling point. Vendors, naturally, have been anxious to get products to market. But this long delay while waiting for the n standard to be ratified puts them in a tricky position. Bring out pre-n products and they risk having a product that is incompatible with the final specifications; wait for final ratification and they might lose customers to rival vendors that are bringing out pre-n products. Some, such as Linksys, Buffalo Technology and Netgear, have already launched pre-n products whilst others, such as USRobotics, have opted to wait. Unsurprisingly, those that have opted to wait to release products are keen to emphasise the potential pitfalls of such kit. Some of the draft n products already on the market are not living up to expectations of 11n, claims Hishamul Hasheel, technical sales manager, USRobotics Middle East and North Africa (MENA). “The draft level n products still have a lot of grey areas in terms of multi-user vendor interoperability and compatibility and bad neighbour issues,” he says. “In terms of actual expectations of 11n, the application throughput performance which the standard is trying to achieve — 100Mbps over an extended range, some of the products which are already out in the market are still not able to give a performance equal to 11g.” “The problem is not only with the performance but also about the extended range. The initial draft n products based on some chipsets have a problem kicking out the enabling networks,” he adds. The main issues are interoperability and compatibility, Hasheel claims. “The products developed with pre-standard technology or even products rushed to the market with standard-based implementation put customers at a higher risk of incompatibility,” he explains. Hasheel says that in developing USRobotics’ own range of draft n products, which are due to launch later this year, the company has taken the time to make sure the chipsets are interoperable and its products, which are developed with Broadcom, should have no problem working with legacy 11g and 11d products. Analyst firm Gartner, however, advises companies against investing in n-products completely. “Instead of buying pre-n, we recommend to not buy pre-n at all in the enterprise because none of those vendors will give you the guarantee that it will be standard compliant so you have to change it, you will have interoperability issues, it will not support the standard,” Rachna Ahlawat, research director wireless networking at Gartner, says. Pre-n technology is, she says, more suited to consumers where the investment is smaller and adds that in any case it is mainly consumer grade companies that are catering to the demand for pre-n products. “Pre-n products are only for the consumer market that buys one access point and then they can throw it away after three years, but in an enterprise market buying hundreds of access points if you deploy anything based on pre-standard, you will have to throw it away,” she warns. Vendors with pre-n products already on the market are attempting to get around the thorny issue of incompatibility by offering upgrades to their clients. Taiwanese company Asustek Computers, for example, is offering free upgrades of its pre-802.11n wireless products should they turn out to be incompatible. No vendor can guarantee that its product won’t need to be replaced, but some vendors, such as Buffalo Technology, are claiming that their products can simply be upgraded. “Our products are made by Broadcom using the intensified chip set and it is software upgradeable very easily so if new technologies are introduced before the final standard is released, we should be able to upgrade with a dead simple upgrade that takes two minutes,” says Kevin Vine, general manager, at Buffalo Technology Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA). But whether an upgrade will be sufficient or whether the product will in fact need to be replaced is no sure thing, other vendors warn. “That is the million-dollar question today in the market,” says USRobotics’ Hasheel. “There are chipset manufacturers who are claiming that some of the draft n chipsets will be finally upgradeable to the final standard but those non-standard or proprietary technologies like the pre-n or multiple-input multiple-output (MIMO) which is not the draft n products we seriously doubt whether upgrade is possible to the higher standards.” One potential positive benefit of the release of pre-n products is that people will start to use the technology earlier, points out Tariq Hasan, sales support manager, Symbol Technologies, Middle East. “People start playing with the technology, understanding the technology and application developments begin earlier so people who use these pre-standard products actually start writing their applications to work on higher throughputs and the other features the 11n is going to bring in.” “This means that when the standard is ratified we might already have a suite of applications ready which is always a good thing,” he says. ||**||New tech boost|~|84-Kevin-4body.jpg|~|Kevin Vine, general manager, at Buffalo Technology Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA). |~|Once the 802.11n gets here, it is expected to give a significant boost to the uptake of wireless technology partly because of the buzz surrounding it and partly because of the greater speed it promises. “The Middle East has always adopted new technologies very enthusiastically and we expect 802.11n to be no exception. In IT, the general trend is that once a newer technology is introduced the old one is quickly made an outcast, and 802.11n with all its hype and promises will only accelerate this behaviour not just in the Middle East but all over the world,” says Hasan. Indeed, industry experts predict that as consumers move onto the n standard, the 802.11n will replace the 802.11b/g standards and these will gradually be phased out. But after so much hype, will the 802.11n live up to expectations? Will it prove worth the wait? Vendors seem to think so. The standard promises dramatic improvements to performance. One of the main allures of the standard is higher speed — the 802.11n protocol is designed to boost WiFi speeds from the current 54Mbit/s ’g’ standard to speeds potentially as high at 600Mbit/s. The 802.11n will also provide better throughput to more bandwidth through the use of MIMO meaning that more applications can be supported. With link rates of 150M and 300Mbps, throughput capacity could be as much as 150M bps, firms claim. “With the current standards what happens is you are limit- ed with bandwidth,” says Symbol’s Hasan. “8011.g promises 54Mbits but in reality what it gives you is maybe half of that or even less. Which means there is only so much you can do, you cannot deploy applications that use high amounts of multi-media for example. So if you want to deploy streaming or a wide number of voice calls it will not be possible or it is possible but with a lot of fine-tuning. This has all become a lot easier with 802.11n.” Range is also expected to improve with the new 802.11n by as much as 50% and the standard is also expected to provide greater reliability over existing wireless networks. Any application that requires some form of multimedia content will benefit from the upgraded 802.11 standard and it will be particularly good for enhancing the voice over internet protocol (VoIP) experience, vendors say. Spurred by the appearance of n-related products, the wireless local area network (WLAN) semi-conductor worldwide market is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 17% to reach $3.2billion by 2010, according to research firm IDC. Already there has been a notable increase over the last few years in the adoption of wireless networks both in the Middle East and elsewhere. Specific figures on the increase in the usage of wireless networks in the Middle East are not available but vendors are reporting healthy sales of wireless products. Symbol, for example, says that its wireless networking business has grown multi-fold in the Middle East and other vendors report similar increases. “What we see is WLAN, not only in Middle East but also in the US and Europe, really picking up at the moment because of the flexibility, the ease of use, of being connected at all times,” says Johan Custers, product specialist at Juniper’s EMEA emerging technologies group. “WLAN is a perfect medium. You are always connected. You go to a conference room, people are not there yet, you are still connected to internet, to e-mail, you can still do your work until the meeting starts. It offers tremendous flexibility to users,” Custers says.||**||Security issues|~|84-USR-Hishamulbody.jpg|~|Hishamul Hasheel, technical sales manager, USRobotics Middle East and North Africa (MENA).|~|One major stumbling block in the past to the advance of wireless technology was security but this is no longer the case, vendors and analysts say. Security of wireless networks has vastly improved with the implementation of technologies such as the WPS and WPA2 and the ratification of the 802.11i security standard. According to some vendors, security of wireless networks can now even be considered on a par with that of wired networks. “I would say today a wireless network can be made almost as secure as a wired network,” said Hasan. “It may never reach that level of wired network but it can be made extremely secure and it should no longer be a major concern for most companies.” As a cautionary note, he says, that whilst security has greatly improved there will always be some element of insecurity with wireless networks. “You can’t really control coverage to an extent that it remains within your campus, for example. There will always be some spillage and that means that is an opportunity for a hacker to try to latch on and hack into your network,” Hasan says. Nonetheless, as the security risks diminish, more firms are investing in wireless networks, according to Juniper’s Custers. “A couple of years ago, a lot of large organisations did not tend to deploy the WLAN because they did not feel it was secure enough. We see that large organisations today are going into the WLAN and installing WLAN networks to offer the flexibility to their employees,” Custers adds. While security problems may have been ironed out, there are still problems on the management side with wireless networks, according to Gartner. “Wireless security problems have been solved, but wireless management is more of a problem,” says Gartner’s Ahlawat. “We have gone from managing every office as a node to every desktop as a node and now every little device that connects on wireless network is a node." "You manage how the users are connecting to the network, what they are accessing and now in wireless medium because you are connecting several different devices, your laptop, your phone, your PDAs, other handhelds, scanners so not every little thing that is connected on the enterprise network using wireless has to be managed,” she says. With improved security and the arrival of the high-speed 802.11n gradually advancing, some industry experts believe that wireless networks will now be able to compete with and may even outperform traditional wired networks. “Contrary to perception, deploying wireless networks is so much easier than wired networks, less expensive and in many ways a simpler technology. It is only a matter of time before the number of clients connected wirelessly outnumbers the number of wired clients,” predicts Hasan. Some vendors believe this is happening already. “As far as wireless networking replacing wired, this is happening right now, though for very high-bandwidth applications and services, wireless technologies can’t handle the load as spectrum in the world is limited and laws of physics are strictly enforced,” says Abir Hnidi, general manager of networking and telecommunications solution provider UTStarcom. Other companies argue that wired networks won’t be dying out any time soon. “The wired network will still form the backbone of any enterprise or network. The wireless network will replace the exterior network of any organisation for a more simplified networking environment,” states USRobotics’ Hasheel. “Some of the wired network we cannot get rid of, the core or back office of an operation will always use the wired network. But what we have seen is that even if companies are implanting the wired network, they still have the option of having a wireless network,” claims Khaldoun Aboul-Saoud, regional manager for markets development, Intel. What is likely to happen is that wireless will become a standard feature of the wired infrastructure instead of a separate network, says Hassanain Alaa, technical consultant at Procurve Networking, HP Middle East. “Because the two networks are collapsed into one that supports wired and wireless access, the unified network promises to be easier to deploy, simpler to run and manage, and lower in total cost of ownership, compared with WLANs that have separate switches and management systems, according to analysts,” says Alaa. Using both wireless and wired networks is something that is already happening, says Juniper. “Depending on the organisation, at least 50% of companies deploy wireless LAN and have both. In large organisations, it is always a combination of both,” Custers says. “We see that people who need to be mobile have wireless access while people behind their desk the whole day do not need to be wireless. For all people that need to be mobile, there is demand to be mobile and have a wireless connection.” “So the larger networks that we see, there is always a combination large part wired and the part which is wireless is getting bigger and bigger,” he adds. More and more organisations are beginning to see the advantages of wireless technologies, report vendors. Hospitals, for example, are issuing doctors with PDAs or laptops, enabling them to access up-to-date patient information, such as medical history or at the point of care. Universities are also adopting wireless technology as a means to attract the best students, while telecommunication companies and major banks are also beginning to see the benefits of wireless technology. Wireless networks are particularly good for small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs), says Intel’s Aboul-Saoud. “For some SMBs, the implementation of wireless network is more cost effective, you can save a big amount of money instead of conducting cables.” But most companies stand to benefit from investing in wireless networks and wireless networks are likely to be adopted across the board, says Symbol. “You deploy a wireless network as an infrastructure. You don’t know two years down the line what kind of applications you are deploying so you might as well go in for the best technology available today. That is what most IT managers think,” Symbol’s Hasan claims. Whilst the development of wireless technology is most definitely good news for the networking industry, it will inevitably mean the industry is going to have to change. “The networking industry will have to adjust. Rather than providing wired networks, they will have to start providing wireless and we are seeing that most of the enterprise providers are starting to do that already,” Hasan continues. “So that shift is happening, it may be happening a bit slowly, but it is definitely happening,” he emphasises. Enterprise networking product vendors that do not adapt are likely to miss out, states Gartner. “If any company doesn’t have a complete WLAN story, they will lose their edge in the market. More and more users are buying wireless and wired together,” Ahlawat claims. “You have to have that offering if you want to compete successfully,” she adds. The advance of wireless networking is set to be more of a problem for cable manufacturers who look set to lose money as the demand for cable gradually declines. Post the arrival of 802.11n, what next? Is there the possibility of there one day appearing another standard with even higher speeds, even better performance than the 802.11n? This could happen, says Juniper’s Custers. “I am sure that in the future there will be other standards still coming out in this market. There will also be faster speeds. This is still a market that is maturing at the moment.” “The standards we have now are mature and a lot of companies are deploying but I sure in the next couple of years as well there will be other standards that will even enhance this technology because wireless is really the way to go for the future,” he concludes. ||**||

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