As more enterprises embrace bring your own device (BYOD) policies, smartphones and tablets are flooding wireless LANs (WLANs) and equipment sales are surging. But BYOD programs are about more than adding new access points; they also require a WLAN design change.
In the second quarter of this year, wireless LAN equipment sales surged 19% quarter on quarter, to an all-time high of $813 million. Matthias Machowinski, directing analyst for enterprise networks at Infonetics, credits much of that market activity to BYOD and companies that need to support a growing number of mobile devices on the network.
“What you’ll see longer term is a greater evaluation of what devices are in the network, and [then] we can start decommissioning some of the wired devices,” he said.
Andrew vonNagy, a networking professional with a Fortune 30 company that he declined to identify for publication, says his organization has doubled wireless network capacity, adding twice as many access points in order to support the growing number of devices. Along the way, the company has also switched to higher-bandwidth 802.11n products.
“Traditionally, organizations have deployed Wi-Fi for coverage and secondary network access. I think a lot of that is shifting to wireless as the primary means of network access for a lot of employee workloads,” he said. “A lot of these devices only have wireless connections if you look at new tablet computers and smartphones, and even larger devices like the MacBook Air and ultra-thin notebooks.”
WLAN design changes for BYOD environments
But vonNagy acknowledges that simply adding new wireless LAN access points to boost capacity for BYOD initiatives isn’t enough. First, most enterprises will have to reduce the cell size of individual access points in order to maximize the reuse of Wi-Fi spectrum.
“In an office building, if you increase from five access points to 10 on a floor, you need to have as many of those access point radios on as many different frequencies as possible in order to increase the overall bandwidth capacity of the network,” he said. “If they overlap in frequency and they can hear one another -- since wireless is a shared medium -- that ultimately doesn’t increase capacity, it just increases the signal strength.”
An enterprise also needs to adjust wireless LAN design and configuration for the mix of devices that will be accessing the network in a BYOD setting because smartphones and tablets typically have lower-powered Wi-Fi chipsets than laptops, vonNagy said. If a higher-powered access point transmits with a significantly stronger signal than the mobile device, the connection degrades.
“Smartphones and tablets… can transmit at only 30 milliwatts. A typical access point can transmit at 100 milliwatts or more, up to 200 or 400. To ensure good quality for those mobile devices, organizations really need to tune that power down,” said vonNagy. “Since this is a shared environment, you have to architect down to the lowest common denominator, even though you might have high-powered laptops that can transmit at the 100 millwatts that your access point can. Depending on the proprietary feature integration between the infrastructure and the client, [laptops] can automatically adjust their power level to match [an access point].”
Turning down the transmit power of a wireless LAN access point to optimize it for smartphones, tablets and other BYOD devices also means the access point will have a smaller maximum coverage area, which means an enterprise will have to invest in even more access points to provide good coverage.
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