Power of N

With draft 2.0 of the 802.11n announced, and version 3.0 underway, Barry Mansfield looks at the latest refinements and asks if now is a good time for businesses in the Middle East to make the switch.

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By  Barry Mansfield Published  December 16, 2007

With draft 2.0 of the 802.11n announced, and version 3.0 underway, Barry Mansfield looks at the latest refinements and asks if now is a good time for businesses in the Middle East to make the switch.

Why should I change the already existing wireless from its current form? Is it the G standard that has caused problems for me in the past?

It's no revelation that over the past several years, Wi-Fi has transformed the way people connect - both at work and at play. Wi-Fi is straightforward to use, affordable, and provides a convenient way to connect to the Internet at home, in the office and on the move. It has been slow to achieve its full potential, however, with connectivity and coverage problems attracting some criticism.

If you want to stream high-definition video, shift the workforce to VoIP, or deliver content-rich applications, draft 2.0 is the way to go.

802.11n is touted as the answer to this - the breakthrough technology that will enable Wi-Fi networks to do more, faster, over a larger area. When finalised, the 802.11n standard promises to offer the very best connection available for computer networking and home entertainment applications alike - delivering the range, bandwidth, and performance that today's multimedia applications and products need.

Wi-Fi radio signals bounce off walls and obstructions, in the same way that sound waves do. Previous generations of Wi-Fi equipment can't use echoes to improve their performance, so they are designed to "tune out" all but the strongest signal they detect, thereby limiting coverage. While the N standard promises to rectify past mistakes and increase coverage, be sure to run pilots before taking the plunge.

What exactly are the benefits realised by 802.11n products and what does the standard's new draft (version 2.0) talk about?

The benefits of 802.11n include higher throughput (about 120Mbps in practice) than the current standard and a range that's 50 per cent longer, which means up to 400 metres. Also, because of its multiple antennas that can stitch together a fractured signal, it eliminates many indoor spots where the signal would usually be dropped.

Publication of the full standard is expected between October 2008 and March 2009, but major manufacturers were quick to release ‘pre-N', ‘draft n' or ‘(Multimedia In Multimedia Out) MIMO-based' products based on early specifications. In May, D-Link became the first vendor to offer a firmware update for its 802.11n gear, updating it to draft 2.0 compatibility. Manufacturers like Atheros, Intel and Apple, and their customers, must be happy to learn that version 2.0 is compatible with the pre-802.11n products they had already launched. It will only require a minor firmware upgrade for complete compatibility with new products.

802.11n has been a long journey so far (work on the standard began in 2004) but the refinements made by draft 2.0 mean it is now more sensible to consider investing in the technology. However, there might be more changes with draft 3.0.

What features can I expect to have if I decide to invest in 802.11n's draft 2.0 products?

A major change in draft 2.0 has been around the implementation of the 40MHz channel. It has been adjusted to accommodate older 2.4GHz band devices, which may be confused by the wider channel bandwidth.

The new specification calls for the use of two 20MHz bands. Under version 2.0, the system will scan the environment looking for legacy devices that might not understand the wider bandwidth, in which case the 802.11n device will back off and send data over only a single 20GHz band. While this would slow down overall data throughput to a single 20MHz channel, 802.11n's MIMO technology will still give 802.11n faster performance.

Another change in the technology allows an 802.11n device to check to make sure both channels are clear before sending data.

Interoperability means that products from different manufacturers work well together, so users don't get locked into a single brand. Draft 2.0 products of 802.11n work with 802.11a/b/g gear as well, but N users won't realise all its benefits when using it with older devices.

How can I justify investing in these draft 2.0 products?

Sumit Kumar, MEA regional manager at US Robotics, admits that some of these improvements are of little use or consequence to the enterprise. "Although the increased speed sounds impressive, most customers have internet connections that are well served by 802.11g products," he says. "Where the benefits come in is in the range. Wireless signal strength is affected by range and draft 2.0 of 802.11n does a much better job of coping with the weaker signal than the G standard. So in practice the user will have more freedom to use his or her laptop where they really would like to work."

Although more vendors are bringing out draft 2.0 software to fit onto their existing products, the US Robotics product range already featured the protection for legacy products, since this was optional in draft 1.0. As Kumar points out, it only became mandatory for draft 2.0.

If you are still with G products, your need for improved range and to cover earlier dead spots could be the clincher. This is why multiple storey office buildings find the N standard so useful.

Are there any hidden costs when setting up with draft 2.0?

It is the cost of implementation that Kumar feels companies should be looking closely at. "Most IT managers are probably still implementing standard G networks," he says. "IT managers should be looking at the cost implications of the two solutions types, N and G, as the expenses involved in installation are often more than the cost of the products. If you can use slightly fewer access points, the total network cost will reduce."

According to Kumar, if you have a router today and it provides connectivity to all necessary parts of the business premises, there are few benefits to be had in splashing out on new equipment that gives greater coverage. If, however, you are setting up an organisation-wide wireless network for the first time, then investing in draft 2.0 would appear to be the sensible thing to do.

The industry is working hard to ensure that today's products will be upgradeable not only to draft 2.0, but draft 3.0 as well. It is not in the industry's benefit to agree to a new standard that requires all the existing products to be completely redesigned.

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