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Upgrade Wi-Fi now, or hold off for 802.11ac Wave 2?

802.11ac Wave 2 -- an upgrade to the initial 802.11ac standard -- has been approved. Should enterprises wait to upgrade to Wave 2-ready products?

Although the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers has approved a final draft of the 802.11ac Wave 2 specification, enterprises shouldn't let the news stop them from investing in the 802.11ac Wave 1 products that are already available on the market today.

802.11ac Wave 1 offers up to 1.3 Gbps of wireless bandwidth within the 5 GHz band. 802.11ac Wave 2 promises speeds up to 6 Gbps in the 5 GHz spectrum on wider, 160 MHz channels. Wave 2 will also introduce multiuser, multiple-input, multiple-output (MIMO) technology, which will allow access points to send multiple streams to multiple clients. All previous Wi-Fi standards, including 802.11ac Wave 1, allowed for access points to send multiple streams to only one client at a time.

802.11ac Wave 2: Should enterprises wait or upgrade?

Many IT professionals might delay their investment in 802.11ac technology until Wave 2 products are available, but wireless LANs are dynamic environments, unlike wired infrastructure. And enterprises should stay true to their refresh cycles while addressing their changing network requirements, said Craig Mathias, principal at the Ashland, Mass.-based advisory firm Farpoint Group.

Native 802.11ac Wave2 access points are most likely still a year or two away, and many network managers will need the bandwidth offered by Wave 1 products before then. "If an enterprise can wait that long for .11ac, then great, but there is an immediate need today thanks to new devices on the network," he said. "Waiting for Wave 2 is a fool's paradise -- it doesn't make sense," Mathias said.

Enterprises could benefit from upgrading their wireless LANS to 802.11ac Wave 1 today, even if most client devices are still 802.11n-compatible. Network managers can operate 802.11ac Wave 1 access points in 802.11n mode for now, as users will experience a boost in.11n performance, Mathias said.

IT professionals already need more capacity on their Wi-Fi networks, leaving them the decision of whether to continue with 802.11n by adding more access points, or migrating to 802.11ac. "Cisco has taken some of those reasons to hold off moving to .11ac away, because the 3700 [access point] with Wave 2 is the same price as the previous generation -- the 3600 -- that supported .11n," said Chris Spain, vice president of marketing for Cisco. "There is really no reason to wait."

802.11ac Wave 1 products have been on the market for about a year -- even before the 802.11ac standard reached finalization. And Cisco has already announced a Wave 2-ready 802.11ac modular access point -- the natively built 802.11ac Aironet 3700. The modular access point can accommodate a future module for 802.11ac Wave 2 -- most likely to start shipping in 2015, Spain said.

While the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers has completed Wave 2 specification, the draft won't receive final approval for some time. However, the update probably won't see many changes from now until finalization, and it shouldn't deter enterprises from upgrading, Mathias said.

What faster Wave 2 speeds could mean for the network

Wave 2 modules or access points require new chipsets, which have already been announced by Quantenna Communications, and are in production with several other chipset vendors. While this technology is expected to be released soon, most 802.11ac Wave 2 access points won't hit the market until 2015. This window will buy time for enterprises to prepare their networks, said Andre Kindness, senior analyst at Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research Inc. Wave 2 access points will be capable of hitting the wired network with data flows that exceed 1 Gbps, which means that Gigabit Ethernet edge switches might not be fast enough to receive that traffic.

"There's a good buffer between now and when the [Wave 2] products do come out, so it gives network administrators time to clean up their back-end infrastructure -- more throughput might mean an enterprise needs to upgrade their edge switches," he said.

"I would design around Wave 2," he said. "It's going to take some time to lay out infrastructure that will accommodate a move to a pure wireless environment -- a move that an enterprise might be considering when employing Wave 2."

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

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