The advancing alphabet soup we know as the 802.11 series of wireless networking standards saw the latest AC kit beginning to hit the market less than a year ago. Is there really a compelling argument for customers to trade in perfectly adequate routers, switches and access points for so-called "Gigabit Wi-Fi" - or is it better to wait?
Matthias Machowinski, directing analyst for enterprise networks and video at Infonetics Research, notes that many organisations still have 802.11g hardware and haven't even got around to N.
Quite a few still use the much slower - and older - B and A equipment as well. That said, they will still eventually have to upgrade.
"One thing we're seeing is that mobility is continuing to drive requirements for the enterprise - from SME to government organisation, non-profit body, or larger," he says. "And last year, over 20 per cent of devices were connected to the network. In two years' time, mobile devices will be the majority of all devices on the network. And there's still a large installed base of other devices."
So the increasing demands on the network mean more throughput is required - and fast. The 5GHz 802.11ac hardware supports 433Mbps throughput per spatial stream, with support for up to eight streams meaning a maximum data transfer rate of 3Gbps, or 1.3Gbps over three streams.
As per previous iterations, AC is backwards-compatible with N, G, A and B but a network can only perform as well as its slowest hardware allows.
Is it time to rip and replace?
According to Machowinski, the decision may not be clear, not least because the first wave of AC devices will be superseded by a new, improved generation as soon as next year. And trends such as BYOD are also adding uncertainty, as no one really knows what kind of devices and apps a new network will need to support.
Client desktops will increasingly be virtualised and distributed, with ever-larger files - such as video - needing to be accessed across a wide range of devices in real time. Companies now need 10 per cent more access points than before, but new AC kit costs perhaps 20 per cent more and if the technology is not quite ready, the organisation may not benefit.
"In 2013 AC was still very much a niche technology," says Machowinski. "But you can see a very quick uptake happen over a very short time frame. Since last summer, approximately 10 per cent of units shipped are AC."
Challenges include getting enough power through the network and across the access points, as AC kit does require more power. The preferred method is Power over Ethernet (PoE) - in 15W or 25+W at least.
Current N access points only need 10W to 13W, but available AC kit "is right up against" the 15W limit, and just because you have 15W leaving an Ethernet switch does not mean you've got 15W coming out the other end.
Fast-forward five years, says Machowinski, and most of the issues will be resolved. However, few organisations can afford to wait five years. Therefore his advice is to consider each individual situation carefully when deciding whether a customer should upgrade now or next year.
Joel Vincent, director of product marketing at Aerohive Networks, says that part of the solution might be to use a controller-less, virtualised set-up.
"You can have physical control and buy a humongous box, or you can have a virtual box, and replace hardware gradually as you go," Vincent says.
"More users, more devices, more speed equals more processing. So you need to architect your network to handle this. If you have 100 users running at 1Gbps, you can centralise it and have something that does 100Gb of throughput - or distribute it across 100 access points each processing 1Gb."
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