With Wi-Fi 6 emerging on the scene, enterprise IT leadership must consider the different options regarding how to best upgrade their aging wireless LANs. Many are confused as to the benefits of Wi-Fi 6 and what vendors are leading the pack in technology, support and ongoing cost options.
This article explores the new Wi-Fi 6 standard and how it differs from previous standards to help create a cost-benefit analysis when looking at upgrade options, as well as details seven of the top network hardware and software vendors that offer on-premises or cloud-managed enterprise-grade Wi-Fi 6 technology platforms.
What is Wi-Fi 6?
Wi-Fi 6 and the more technical name IEEE 802.11ax are one and the same. For years, Wi-Fi standards were differentiated using the IEEE 802.11 naming convention. Thus, the technology has gone through the following standards through the years in the enterprise until Wi-Fi 6 emerged:
Keeping track of each 802.11 standard and how they all differ is growing increasingly complex from a naming convention perspective. Thus, the Wi-Fi Alliance set out to create a new naming convention for Wi-Fi standards that is far easier to keep track of. Thus, it took the three most recent IEEE standard specifications -- 802.11n, 802.11ac and 802.11ax -- and began marketing them with the names Wi-Fi 4, Wi-Fi 5 and Wi-Fi 6, respectively.
How is Wi-Fi 6 different from its predecessors?
Like the IEEE standards that predate Wi-Fi 6, this new standard performs all the same duties as Wi-Fi 5 and earlier, while also offering improvements in the areas of device capacity, coverage and overall performance.
It's also important to note that Wi-Fi 6 is backward-compatible with all other Wi-Fi standards back to 802.11b. That means older devices can connect to new Wi-Fi 6 deployments with the caveat that the performance and capabilities only match what the wireless end device can handle. Thus, most of the benefits of Wi-Fi 6 are only obtainable for those wireless devices that are also Wi-Fi 6-capable.
If both the wireless LAN (WLAN) and wireless device are Wi-Fi 6-compatible, they demonstrate the following improvements.
Efficient coding and more spatial streams = more usable bandwidth
The bandwidth and speed gains of Wi-Fi 6 are due to two advancements in wireless technology. First, Wi-Fi 6 incorporates more efficient coding processes that can transmit more data using the same 5 GHz spectrum. The second feature enhancing a wireless access point's (WAP) overall bandwidth capacity is using increased spatial streams.
Early 802.11 standards provided a single spatial stream for transport, so only one device was able to send and receive wireless data per WAP. For low-density Wi-Fi deployments, this was enough. However, as the number of Wi-Fi-capable devices began to increase on the enterprise WLAN, it created significant slowdowns for end users as devices had to wait to gain access to the single spatial stream. To address this issue, more recent standards have increased the number of simultaneous streams that a single WAP can handle.
For example, the 802.11n standard allowed for up to three spatial streams. Wi-Fi 5 can handle up to four -- while the latest Wi-Fi 6 standard provides eight streams. Thus, the combination of enhanced wireless encoding and the doubling of spatial streams makes the latest standard nearly 40% faster than its predecessor.
Advancements in MIMO provide better coverage and connectivity
Delivering uniform coverage with fewer dead spots is easier using advancements found in Wi-Fi 6 multiuser multiple input, multiple output (MU-MIMO) technologies. MU-MIMO is the traffic control portion of the WLAN that dictates which end devices gain access to a spatial stream for the purpose of wireless data transport. With advancements of the technology, MU-MIMO enables more end devices to communicate at faster speeds, even in areas where wireless density is highly concentrated. Thus, a new deployment could potentially decrease the number of WAPs required to support wireless users, while also providing an increase in network speed and latency thanks to MU-MIMO.
End-device battery efficiency improvements
Many wireless devices that connect to corporate networks use battery as their main source of power. Besides providing power to the device itself, battery-powered Wi-Fi devices use a significant portion of power in order to transmit and receive data on the WLAN.
With the Wi-Fi 6 Target wake Time (TWT) feature, compatible devices can achieve improved battery life by lowering the amount of battery required to connect and operate on the Wi-Fi network. The WLAN and end devices use TWT to negotiate and set a per-device schedule on wake-up timers that indicate which devices are connected to a WAP versus those that have disconnected. By negotiating longer wake-up intervals, the battery-powered end device can have the Wi-Fi chip effectively turned off for longer periods of time, ultimately reducing the amount of power required over time.
Wi-Fi 6 builds upon the security features of Wi-Fi Protected Access 2 (WPA2) from previous Wi-Fi standards, while adding more security benefits. The new standard is called WPA3, and it helps to increase cryptographic capabilities, improve authentication mechanisms and make back-end administration easier.
Evaluating top enterprise Wi-Fi 6 vendors
Because all vendors develop their products around the IEEE Wi-Fi 6/802.11ax standard, the comparison of enterprise-grade vendor hardware and functionality is going to be largely the same. That said, wireless network vendors do have ways to differentiate their platforms over others that reside outside the IEEE's specifications for wireless data transport.
In the following section, learn about seven of the top enterprise Wi-Fi 6 vendors compiled based on market analysis research from multiple sources.
For a company that got its start in the narrowly focused market of ultrahigh-speed packet pushing, Arista's purchase of Mojo Networks -- a Wi-Fi-centric company -- was a bit of a head-scratcher. Yet, according to company reps, the acquisition was part of a larger goal "designed to address transitional changes as enterprises move to IoT-ready campuses." In other words, Arista is now looking beyond the data center by taking on modern challenges of the campus LAN.
However, much like Arista's other products, the company's Cognitive WiFi branded platforms are targeted toward businesses that require high network performance levels. Arista accomplishes this using big data analytics to proactively identify and remediate inefficiencies that end-user wireless experiences often encounter.
While Cisco has a separate line of on-premises controller-based WLAN technologies, most of Cisco's Wi-Fi 6 sales are coming from its Meraki brand of cloud-managed WAPs. Meraki was a pioneer of cloud-managed networking components. While other vendors eventually caught up to the concept of cloud-controlled network devices, Meraki remains one of the best in terms of ease of use and administrative management.
Additionally, the Cisco Meraki line includes add-on integration benefits for organizations that have other Cisco and Meraki components on their network. While Meraki may carry a premium price compared to some others on this list, the quality of the platform combined with 24/7 support often justifies the extra cost.
Ruckus has had an interesting path over the past few years. After being acquired and sold several times, the networking company is currently owned by parent company Arris, which was also acquired by CommScope in 2019.
While Ruckus sells several products in the overall network infrastructure market, Wi-Fi is at the heart of the company's portfolio. Both on-premises and cloud-managed Wi-Fi 6 hardware and software options are available. One major differentiating feature that Ruckus touts in its current line of Wi-Fi 6-capable products is known as the Ultra-High Density Technology Suite. This set of technologies sits on top of the 802.11ax standard and is designed to further network performance in high-density areas, such as convention centers, concert halls and sports stadiums.
Extreme Networks has been on an acquisition splurge since 2016. Doing so has elevated the company to be a complete end-to-end network provider with the likes of Cisco, Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE), Juniper and, more recently, Fortinet.
Prior to its Aerohive acquisition in 2019, Extreme only carved out a small niche with its legacy line of enterprise WLAN hardware and software using on-premises wireless controllers. Aerohive's controllerless and distributed architecture gave Extreme some differentiation from vendors that are moving to cloud-managed alternatives. The on-premises distributed architecture provides administrators with greater levels of tuning and control with added resiliency when compared to cloud-managed alternatives.
When most people think of Fortinet, they think of a security-centric systems provider, as opposed to one that sells traditional network infrastructure components, such as WLAN equipment. But, now that networking and network security are virtually synonymous, Fortinet has made tremendous strides into the enterprise networking market and is successfully competing with more traditional networking companies, such as Cisco, Extreme and Juniper.
Like most other vendors in the enterprise Wi-Fi market, Fortinet offers WLAN tools that admins can manage via a dedicated, on-premises controller or by using a cloud-managed service option. A third option for the SMB market is to use Fortinet's popular FortiGate product to serve as a next-gen firewall and perform the on-premises WLAN controller duties for the network.
Additionally, Fortinet's network access control (NAC) platform -- called FortiNAC -- can integrate into any of the three wireless architecture options to provide a streamlined way to securely manage the authentication, access and monitoring of wireless users, as well as autonomous IoT devices.
As an arm of HPE, Aruba designs and sells enterprise-grade network hardware and software, including software-defined WAN gateways, Ethernet switches and Wi-Fi 6 architectures. Like many other vendors, Aruba offers both on-premises controllers and cloud-managed WLAN architecture options.
The vendor also incentivizes customers to purchase and install other Aruba and HPE hardware and software by tightly integrating their WLAN products with network switches, network access controllers and remote office gateways. These proprietary integrations expand performance, security and accessibility features across multiple segments of the network. One example of this is using Aruba's ClearPass Policy Manager product with Aruba WAPs to provide secure access for mobile and IoT devices that roam from one business location to the next. The use of the cloud-managed controller with NAC authentication and authorization policies can create a unique and dynamic segmentation architecture that provides an extra layer of security that other providers cannot.
Prior to acquiring Mist in early 2019, Juniper's enterprise WLAN offering felt stagnant compared to the competition. The company has abandoned its wireless access hardware and software in favor of the Mist ecosystem.
With Mist, Juniper's wireless market has become infused with new and unique features thanks to the Mist AI-driven platform that provides deep visibility and insights into client health from a Wi-Fi perspective. The system can use collected wireless health data in order to detect performance anomalies that admins can subsequently track down and remediate to improve Wi-Fi performance. This level of visibility will be something that competitors will seek to mimic with their own platforms in the future. But, for now, Juniper and Mist Systems are hard to beat when it comes to ensuring the WLAN is operating at peak levels.