With the 802.11ac standard -- or "gigabit Wi-Fi" -- approaching ratification, network administrators will need simplified performance management tools that combine both wired and wireless network management in order to help the wireless LAN live up to its potential, an increasingly critical role within businesses.
Jim Berenbaum, research director of mobility, wireless and network technologies for Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Research Inc., shared his insight on wireless LAN market milestones in 2013, as well as his vision on what network administrators can expect in 2014.
802.11ac: Breathing new life into the WLAN market
The soon-to-be-ratified 802.11ac standard was on almost every WLAN vendors' mind in 2013, with a slew of new Wave 1 gigabit Wi-Fi access points -- both modular and purpose-built -- introduced to the market from the likes of Aruba, Motorola, Cisco and Xirrus.
A Wi-Fi network powered by 802.11ac gives WLAN technology comparable bandwidth to wired access switches, making Wi-Fi plausible as the default choice for network infrastructure. "The fact that there is a new technology available with increased performance capabilities is allowing WLANs to better position [themselves] as replacements for wired networks moving forward," Berenbaum said.
The education segment has led the way for 802.11ac deployments so far, but while adoption wasn't widespread in 2013, the standard's ratification -- slated for the beginning of 2014 -- should help increase interest and growth among other industries, Berenbaum said. "One of the nice things about .11ac is it's a bit ahead of the demand curve, as [802.11n] is still meeting the needs of many organizations," he said. "But organizations are becoming aware that the rest of their network infrastructure -- like the wired LAN and enterprise WANs -- need to also expand to take advantage of the capabilities that .11ac has to offer."
While Wave 1-enabled 802.11ac products are already on the market, Wave 2 -- a system of additional capabilities, like multi-user MIMO for 802.11ac -- won't be a big factor in 2014 for enterprises. "Wave 2 will require new chips, not just a software upgrade," he said. "These products probably won't be available until the end of the year, so they won't have a market impact in 2014."
HotSpot 2.0, small cell networks could influence the 2014 WLAN market
More news on the WLAN market in 2013:
WLAN design tools prepare enterprises for optimal Wi-Fi experience
Aruba WLAN technology: Building an intelligent 802.11ac network
Meru introduces context-aware Wi-Fi networking
Xirrus 802.11ac access point: Equal support for high, low speed clients
HotSpot 2.0, a standard for public Wi-Fi access developed by the Wi-Fi Alliance and the Wireless Broadband Association, could be a game-changer for the WLAN market by allowing users to roam between Wi-Fi networks, as well as between Wi-Fi and cellular networks, without the need to re-authenticate. Some businesses have begun investing in Hotspot 2.0 to address mobile user needs, but it's still yet to been seen how the standard will play out within enterprise environments, Berenbaum said. "The value of Hotspot 2.0 is much clearer for a carrier-based Wi-Fi environment than it is for enterprise environments right now, but there is potential for the standard to be realistically deployed within enterprises."
Enterprise small cell technology for cellular services has also been slow to gain traction within the enterprise, but has potential to blossom in the coming year. Small cells can serve as another mechanism for enabling cellular connectivity into enterprise facilities, but there are still some technology hurdles related to multi-carrier support that need to be worked out, Berenbaum said.
Will wireless trump wired networks in 2014?
With WLANs graduating from a "nice feature to have," to a critical business network, enterprises will be asking for tools that increase ease of management for combined wired/wireless networks, and overall performance across their entire environment, Berenbaum said. As users bring in more new devices without Ethernet ports -- like some laptops and all tablets -- the pressure is on for IT to ensure their Wi-Fi network is up for the challenge.
"Interest and expansion for the all-wireless enterprise is on the rise, but it's not going to increase tremendously fast this year; it's still going to be more common to mix wired and wireless because the wires are already there in most cases," he said.