802.11s is a proposed amendment to the 802.11 wireless networking standards that will provide a vendor-neutral way to build wireless mesh networks over a wireless LAN (WLAN). Currently, enterprise mesh solutions rely on proprietary protocols to link access points together in a mesh. 802.11s enables interoperability between client devices of all types and manufacturers, enabling any device to link to a common mesh network.

The 802.11s mesh network standard would provide a way to deliver fully meshed wireless networks that enabled clients not only to link to other mesh nodes but also to serve as wireless access points, routing traffic to the nearest node with a network connection.

Existing enterprise mesh solutions, in contrast, rely on a tree-based network architecture. In a wireless tree architecture, dedicated access points connect to other access points, extending the network to parts of the facility where is either impossible or impractical to connect with Ethernet cables. 

To build a mesh network, the 802.11s standard adds mesh node discovery and MAC-based routing capabilities into the 802.11 wireless protocol. This addition gives wireless devices the ability to see the other mesh nodes, as well as the ability to push traffic to the nearest connection in the network.

The standard also requires that each node of the mesh network be categorized by how it will interact with the other nodes. Under an 802.11s configuration, network devices connecting to the mesh would define their capabilities to the mesh, either as a client device seeking access or as a mesh node capable of expanding the mesh network and handling traffic for other clients and nodes. Smartphones, for example, would probably be categorized as access-only devices on a mesh network because of the impact of an always-on wireless connection on battery life. A desktop with a wireless adapter, on the other hand, could fill the role of both client and mesh node.

802.11s also includes plans to leverage all of the wireless security protocols within the 802.11 specifications, ensuring that users deploying a mesh network can do so without a radical change in their encryption and authentication schemes.

Once ratified, the 802.11s standard is likely to play heavily in the home networking and consumer electronic space. An 802.11s-capable video game console, for example, could extend a customer's wireless network without the need for additional access points. While the enterprise customer may be slower to adopt the standard, 802.11s affords the opportunity to rethink how wireless networks are designed in both the home and the enterprise. Like all of the components of the 802.11 specification, the IEEE will move 802.11s through its approval process. According to the official IEEE 802.11 timeline, 802.11s is slated for approval in mid-2011.

This was last updated in October 2010

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