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802.11ac Wave 2 may force Ethernet switch upgrades as early as 2015

The high bandwidth of 802.11ac Wave 2 might force enterprises to upgrade to faster Ethernet switches in 2015.

As enterprises start to adopt 802.11ac Wave 2 wireless technology in 2015, many enterprises may need to upgrade Ethernet switches to support the higher bandwidth Wi-Fi.

In 2014, many organizations, especially schools and universities, embraced Wave 1 Gigabit Wi-Fi, but Wave 2, which is much faster, is just on around the corner. The 802.11ac Wave 2 specification can support maximum wireless speeds of 6.93 Gbps in the 5 GHz spectrum on wider, 160 MHz channels. 802.11ac Wave 1 tops out around 1.3 Gbps, depending on network infrastructure supporting the technology. Gigabit Ethernet edge switches can handle the flows produced by Wave 1 802.11ac, but Wave 2 will require new switches to handle faster traffic. Dell'Oro Group, based in Redwood City, Calif., recently predicted that Wave 2 technology would spur a "mini-upgrade cycle" for Ethernet-switching infrastructure, including adoption of the forthcoming 2.5 and 5 Gigabit Ethernet switches.

802.11ac Wave 2 requires infrastructure upgrades

Access points based on 802.11ac Wave 2 will add more users and more bandwidth to the wireless network. Like all legacy Wi-Fi standards, 802.11ac Wave 1 allows access points to send multiple streams to only one client at a time, which meant fewer flows on the network. Wave 2 will support multiuser, multiple-input, multiple-output (multi-user MIMO), which allows access points to send multiple streams to multiple clients at the same time. This technology will allow businesses to support significantly more end users and applications. Employee productivity may get a boost -- but Wave 2 won't enable these changes without a switch upgrade.

Businesses considering a future move to 802.11ac Wave 2 should be thinking about the design of their network and their existing infrastructure, said Craig Mathias, principal at the advisory firm Farpoint Group, based in Ashland, Mass.

Switch capacity was already starting to become an issue with 802.11ac Wave 1, because the standard can support speeds of 1.3 Gbps, and most access ports top out at 1 Gbps. However, most enterprises suffer from environmental factors such as interference, which keeps 802.11ac wave 1 from hitting its top theoretical speed.

Houston Community College in Texas is planning a comprehensive access point upgrade to 802.11ac Wave 1, and ultimately, Wave 2 technology, said Kyle Cooper, senior network architect for Houston Community College. The college, which has over 26 campuses, 75,000 students and 8,000 faculty members, has an access network consisting primarily of Cisco Catalyst 4500 series switches and Cisco Aironet 802.11n access points. The college needs to support BYOD more users and more endpoints now, with Wave 1. But Wave 2 will help even more.

"Wave 2 technology will really help in our very high-density environments -- like common areas and large classrooms," Cooper said.

Cooper knows the college's existing network will not fully support Wave 2. "There's still a lot of development needed from an access point and switching perspective because when Wave 2 comes out, there is going to be a need for increased uplink capabilities and [Power over Ethernet] too," he said.

Cooper and his team believe they have enough switching capacity to support Wave 1, but they are switch upgrades for Wave 2.  "The progression of Wave 2 is really making access switches become more like core switches," he said. "But with the current line cards and switching infrastructure we have in place, we can still look at migrating to Wave 1 for initial deployment."       

Infrastructure upgrades shouldn't deter 802.11ac Wave 2 deployments

Wave 2 will force infrastructure upgrades, but it might not be a problem for enterprises in 2015.  While enterprises may install 802.11ac Wave 2 infrastructure next year, very few client devices will support the standard until the second half of 2015, Farpoint's Mathias said. Client devices won't be able to produce enough traffic to fill Gigabit Ethernet ports. "Even then, the infrastructure probably won't be there for [customers] to really get the full benefit of Wave 2 technology," he said.

That doesn't mean enterprises should be holding off on adopting 802.11ac Wave 2 in 2015, however, Mathias said. If a business' Wi-Fi technology refresh cycle is coming up, but they aren't ready to make additional infrastructure investments, Wave 2 technology is backwards compatible with legacy standards.

 "[802.11ac Wave 2] is not a critical need today, but it does have evolutionary value for the future," he said. "[Enterprises] can’t sit still with wireless – they'll have a capacity problem because they probably have one already."

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

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