How to buy: What to look for in 802.11ac access points

If you're in the market for 802.11ac access points for your wireless LAN, find out what features are essential when it's time to buy.

If you have a wireless LAN (WLAN) (and who doesn't today), you're undoubtedly looking at upgrading to 802.11ac (Gigabit Wi-Fi) access points (APs) and related WLAN products based on the recently approved 802.11ac standard. While speeds of up to 1.3 Gbps are driving most of that interest, enterprise buyers should be looking for a lot more than that as they augment and grow their wireless networks using this intriguing new technology...

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It can be argued that few individual users really need gigabit speeds, but that level of throughput actually translates to higher capacity for the network overall. This means network professionals can better address the needs of a growing user base armed with a variety of mobile devices that are packed with a multitude of applications.

If access points are on the shopping list, then 802.11ac-based products are providing improved performance for the earlier 802.11n standard (up to 540 Mbps). We've seen 15% to 20% increases (with no changes on the client side), so it's easy to build a business case for 802.11ac. In addition, 802.11ac AP prices are the same as or just slightly higher than those for 802.11n APs. Thanks to innovations like built-in and standardized beamforming, in 802.11ac, range, throughput, reliability, price and performance are all improved.

802.11ac must-have features

All of that being said, when you're getting ready to buy, it's important to note that not all 802.11ac APs are alike, and not all products offer the same features and performance. Here are a few must-have features and capabilities that are of particular interest to enterprises.

When you're getting ready to buy, it's important to note that not all 802.11ac APs are alike.
  • Nondisruptive scalability. 802.11ac will be installed in most settings as an overlay to 802.11n or even older infrastructures. It's vital that 802.11ac APs be supported transparently -- and perhaps initially in backwards-compatible 802.11n mode or even used just as sensors to detect unauthorized 802.11ac activity. The new APs can later be converted to provision access.
  • Dual Gigabit-Ethernet ports. Dual radios are common in APs today, and two 802.11ac radios might indeed swamp a single port. Look for two GbE ports on any dual-radio AP. Still, 1.3 Gbps throughput is unlikely to stress Gigabit Ethernet (GbE) switch ports because the actual throughput will likely be no more than half of that peak. Note: Vendors usually quote the maximum possible rate, which isn't possible given radio frequency propagation and other radio-transmission issues.
  • Support for dense deployments. Some WLAN administrators are under the impression that higher throughput implies that fewer APs will be required. Nothing could be further from the truth. The wider channels (2.4 and 5 GHz bands) and more aggressive radio modulation of 802.11ac access points, coupled with the always-increasing demand for capacity, means that more APs will likely be required. Given the inherent complexity here, control functions should be able to self-configure APs, make key decisions on radio channel and transmit power allocations, and meet other operating parameters automatically.
  • Enhanced management functions. Management functions overall will likely be major differentiators of performance and value. To that end, be careful to consider how these innovations can improve not just throughput and reliability, but also IT management productivity and total cost of ownership.

802.11ac nice-to-have features

Not necessarily essential, the nice-to-have 802.11ac AP functions include operation on 802.3af Power over Ethernet (PoE) instead of 802.3at or proprietary PoE; support for security functions like intrusion detection or prevention, rogue detection and spectral analysis; and add-on functions like client location and tracking, unified communications, analytics, performance optimization based on application awareness, and identity management for enhanced security.

The bottom line as it relates to 802.11ac APs is -- don't wait. Begin your evaluation now, as the benefits of 802.11ac are real and already yielding returns in many organizations today.

Next: Wondering which AP to buy? See our reviews of Cisco and Meru Networks' APs.

This was first published in May 2014

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