Do you need 11ac?
Do enterprises really need the extra performance that 11ac provides, and if they do, should they wait until the next wave of products comes out next year?
In late 2012, when Huawei unveiled the industry’s first enterprise-level 802.11ac access point, it really seemed as if the new IEEE wireless standard was going to revolutionise the workplace. Employees would no longer be bound to their desks because, whatever they were doing, an enterprise’s Wi-Fi network would be able to handle the load thanks to gigabit transfer speeds. Finally, networking vendors said, there was a viable wireless alternative to Ethernet.
But fast-forward to today, and enterprises have hardly been falling over themselves in their attempts to bring their wireless networks up to speed. In the Middle East, catalogued deployments of Wave 1 802.11ac technologies are few and far between. Indeed, it seems that most enterprises still manage just fine with their still-perfectly-viable 802.11n kit, or even their ageing 802.11b/g/n devices.
This is not to say that organisations aren’t at all interested in upgrading to the new wireless standard. According to Timothy Zimmerman, research vice president for network infrastructure, mobility and RFID at Gartner, the adoption of Wave 1 802.11ac technologies is growing globally, particularly as vendors continue to release new products that cost more-or-less the same as the 802.11n products that preceded them.
“The adoption of 802.11ac Wave 1 technology in 5 GHz radios of vendor access points continues to grow global as vendors continue to offer the upgrade in performance at approximately the same pricing as 802.11n. With little or no premium for 802.11ac Wave 1, clients are looking at future proofing their 5 GHz radios even though most do not have the need for the additional performance,” he says.
As with any technology enhancement, it seems that 802.11ac’s early adopters are paving the way because they want to future-proof their networks. And certainly, there is nothing wrong with that. Other organisations are opting for 11ac because the technology came out at the right time in their own upgrade cycles. Speaking to Network Middle East earlier this year, Mehmet Akdeniz, director of IT and AV at Emirates Palace Hotel, said that he opted for an 11ac deployment because it was the best technology available to him when the hotel decided that its Wi-Fi network needed a refresh.
Because of the demanding nature of the hotel’s high-flying guests, Emirates Palace derived plenty of value from the deployment. The question, though, is whether other enterprises in the Middle East will see the same benefits from 11ac.
According to Zimmerman, many organisations may find that their needs are more than met by a 450 Mbps 802.11n, 3x3, three-stream MIMO access point, meaning that there isn’t much cause to upgrade to 802.11ac. What’s more, given that that the new standard only operates on the 5 GHz band, many organisations won’t even be able to glean the best results from it, as they’ll likely still be running devices operating on the 2.4 GHz band. However, as ever, different businesses have different needs. So, for example, if employees often have to transfer large files, such as those created within CAD or CAM suites, there could be a real benefit for going for the gigabit wireless speeds that 802.11ac allows.
“We advise clients to review their application requirements. The major benefit of 802.11ac Wave 1 is higher performance for those mobile clients that can utilise the benefit at 5 GHz with additional antennas. Additional benefits may be achieved from specific vendor implementations of optional functionality, but should be verified by the enterprise IT team and required to achieve the business value,” he says.
However, Zimmerman predicts that most organisations will benefit more from 11ac technology once Wave 2 products begin hitting shelves next year. He says that Wave 2 enhancements will include multi-user MIMO (MU-MIMO), which will allow multiple users to connect simultaneously with a single access point. This would mean enterprise could address high-density areas where there are many users in a single coverage area. As Wave 1 products stand, he says, enterprises can only do time-slicing conversions where one client communicates with the radio at a time.
The vendors manufacturing the latest 802.11ac products take a different standpoint, and are keen to point out that enterprises can still benefit from the wireless improvements promised by 11ac products now. For example, Sakkeer Hussain, sales and marketing director at D-Link MEA, says that, because consumers are now more aware of technology thanks to the proliferation of smart devices, employees now demand faster and more capable Wi-Fi. He adds that, technically, the UAE is at the forefront when it comes to wireless enhancements.
“There are already a lot of enterprise set-ups that take advantage of the 802.11ac technology, since that is the only way forward to improve their wireless LAN,” he says. “11ac is currently the fastest Wi-Fi available and it’s a good idea to invest in 11ac devices if your current, older-generation Wi-Fi does not suffice for your growing wireless network demands at home or at work.”
Meanwhile, Manish Bhardwaj, regional marketing manager at Aruba Networks, says that even Wave 1 products using the 11ac standard can solve real problems for businesses today. He admits that many enterprises are sitting on the fence, waiting for Wave 2 products to appear, but he is adamant that Wave 1 products still have their benefits. He reels off several examples.