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Future-proofing the enterprise WLAN: 802.11ac access point options

Vendors have begun announcing 802.11ac access point technology and investment plans for enterprises upgrading their wireless infrastructure.

Wireless LAN vendors have already begun touting 802.11ac access point options and migration paths for enterprises, even as the standard awaits completion.

The 802.11ac specification -- dubbed "gigabit Wi-Fi" -- promises faster data transfer speeds than 802.11n from 450Mbps to 1.3 Gbps, and should accommodate a larger number of Wi-Fi-enabled devices. Enterprises are considering the 802.11ac standard as a way to future-proof their network as the number of wireless devices per user increases.

Vendors offer 802.11ac access point options, while protecting existing infrastructure investment

Upgrading a wireless LAN can be expensive and time-consuming to for IT department. Some networking vendors -- like Cisco and Xirrus Inc. -- have announced 802.11ac expansion modules that fit into existing 802.11n infrastructure.

Cisco will begin shipping expansion modules for its premium access point -- the Aironet 3600 Series -- early next year. Network administrators can plug modules into existing 3600 access points to immediately support 802.11ac without ripping and replacing legacy technology, noted Inbar Lasser-Raab, senior director of enterprise networking marketing at Cisco.

The University of South Florida in Tampa (USF), which has deployed hundreds of Cisco's Aironet 3600 access points, has the 802.11ac standard on its radar as high-density classrooms and more wireless devices per student eat up bandwidth on the campus network.

Using a plug-in module to upgrade an Aironet 3600 from an access point that supports 802.11n access to one that supports 802.11ac access will help the school quickly improve support for the 300 to 400 wireless devices students typically carry into a 150-seat classroom, and the 1,000 concurrent wireless users who fill up the university's library every day, said Joe Rogers, senior network engineer for USF. "Our students and facility are always hungry for more bandwidth, and [802.11ac] will definitely become our standard wireless technology once it's available," he said. Being able to attach a new module to existing technology offers some investment protection -- a benefit for IT departments as the new wireless standard becomes finalized and ratified, he added.

Xirrus, like Cisco, also is easing its customers into the new standard by offering its new XR-2200 Series field-upgradable wireless array, which has two open slots that will accept Xirrus 802.11ac modular access points when they are available. Customers will be able to upgrade their infrastructure easily by opening each array and inserting the new radios for higher-bandwidth radios, said Bruce Miller, vice president of product marketing for Xirrus.

Wi-Fi access points: Enterprises want investment protection

Not every enterprise will move to 802.11ac immediately. Many are still upgrading to 802.11n, said Matthias Machowinski, directing analyst of enterprise networks and video for Campbell, Calif.-based Infonetics Research Inc. "It's likely that upgrades to 802.11ac will be happening over the course of the next five to six years," he said.

Many enterprises refuse to buy a new generation of network technology before standardization, even though early generations of pre-802.11n-standard products were successful. Some vendors are addressing users' concerns by offering an investment program aimed at providing their customers with the most up-to-date technology.

Meru Networks Inc., a Sunnyvale, Calif.-based networking vendor, has announced an investment protection plan, in addition to a new wireless access point-- the AP332. The plan will allow users to buy the AP332 and three other 802.11n access points now, and upgrade to 802.11ac access points released in the future by paying an additional fee of $499, said Manish Rai, vice president of product marketing for Meru.

While enterprises will not move to 802.11ac immediately, the rise of bring your own device, or BYOD, policies and devices that will support the new standard natively is encouraging enterprises to put 802.11ac on their radar, Rai said. "For enterprises on the fence about whether to support 802.11ac now or next year, we are giving those customers a discount for trading up from their 801.11n products purchased now, to the 802.11ac product we will be releasing next year," he said.

Xirrus also has announced an investment plan for customers who might wait until 802.11ac is finalized before upgrading. The pre-order program will give discounts to customers ordering 802.11ac modules ahead of their general availability next year.

"Vendors should be coming up with prudent ways to help enterprises invest in technology," Machowinski said. "Users want to buy technology now, knowing the price won't drop dramatically or won't be supported in a few months."

Let us know what you think about the story; email Gina Narcisi, News Writer, and follow @GeeNarcisi on Twitter.

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