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Wi-Fi 6 rollout requires careful review of network devices

Wi-Fi 6 is just one part of the overall enterprise network. Organizations need to evaluate several network components to ensure a smooth Wi-Fi 6 deployment.

For new wireless network deployments and lifecycle upgrades alike, it's hard to ignore the siren song of Wi-Fi 6. Everything, potentially, gets better with Wi-Fi 6, including features, performance and capacity. It's all in there.

But, to take advantage of a Wi-Fi 6 network, you can't just slap in new access points (APs) and enjoy faster connectivity. Remember, Wi-Fi is just part of the overall network equation, whether it's a home network or enterprise environment. Wi-Fi's success always depends on the underpinnings of the network it is deployed on.

Small environments still have concerns

At home and for many SMBs, a wireless upgrade may seem as simple as removing Wi-Fi 5 routers and replacing them with Wi-Fi 6 routers. Easy-peasy, right? Maybe not.

Even in the smallest Wi-Fi 6 network, you need to look at things holistically. To start, what is your ISP connection? Even if you can achieve multigig data rates between your wireless clients and router, you may not notice any gains if your internet connection is a bottleneck. If you have a strong ISP connection but also a long wiring run between your internet modem and Wi-Fi 6 router, you'll want to scan that cable to ensure it's up to the task of supporting at least 1 Gb throughput. Again, you'll have a potential bottleneck if you're using an old Cat5 cable.

Then, there is the question of your client devices. How many of them are Wi-Fi 6-enabled? That original Chromecast probably isn't going to benefit much from Wi-Fi 6, but your new laptop might -- if it has a Wi-Fi 6 adapter.

In the consumer space, Netgear, TP-Link and Asus are among the vendors offering Wi-Fi 6 routers. In this case, a router is an all-in-one residential box that's also an AP, a switch and a security device. Step up to the prosumer tier, and you'll find Ubiquiti and TP-Link selling Wi-Fi 6 APs as standalone dedicated wireless devices alongside their Wi-Fi 5 offerings.

Enterprise Wi-Fi 6 means deep review of entire LAN

Just about every enterprise networking vendor is offering early Wi-Fi 6 products. Arista, Aruba/HPE, Cisco, Extreme Networks, Meraki and Mist all have a Wi-Fi 6 offering.

Cisco Catalyst 9600 core switch
Cisco Catalyst 9600 core switch powers Wi-Fi 6 in the campus WLAN

The market leader, Cisco, is evolving its overall wireless LAN (WLAN) strategy in ways that existing customers will want to scrutinize. New licensing paradigms, new required controller hardware, a new OS for WLAN equipment -- it all adds up to feeling like a different vendor service. That said, Wi-Fi 6 may be a great opportunity to do a WLAN request for proposal if you're seeking a new vendor. You may also want to hold off for Wi-Fi 6E hardware.

At home, all network services and components are usually under the hood of the network router. But, in an enterprise network, a wireless AP sits at the end of a wiring run that connects to a switch for both data and operational voltage from Power over Ethernet.

Because Wi-Fi 6 promises multiple gigabits of throughput, everything downstream from the AP needs to be audited for capability. For that matter, even the existing WLAN design needs to be reviewed to make sure existing AP placement is suitable for expected client counts and distribution throughout the WLAN.

Migrating to Wi-Fi 6 may ultimately mean recabling and replacing switches to build bigger lanes for Wi-Fi 6 traffic all the way through the network.

Now, back to cabling and switching. Migrating to Wi-Fi 6 may ultimately mean recabling and replacing switches to build bigger lanes for Wi-Fi 6 traffic all the way through the network. It's a ripple effect in that higher-capacity switches may require bigger uplinks, and even your closet uninterruptible power supply appliances may need to be replaced to support the same amount of backup for Wi-Fi 6 APs versus Wi-Fi 5.

What about Wi-Fi 6 client devices?

Networks are built to connect clients that use networked applications. This basic construct underlies all networking -- and carries into Wi-Fi 6. But simply installing the network side of a Wi-Fi 6 deployment only addresses part of the equation. It's important to understand the client devices that will use the new Wi-Fi 6 signals.

As with preceding standards, Wi-Fi 6 promises backward compatibility with older client devices, but network administrators choose how far they want to take that. For example, most admins shut down support for 802.11b long ago.

To understand your Wi-Fi 6 network's health, you need to understand what your client mix is.

With Wi-Fi 6, orthogonal frequency-division multiple access modulation helps current and legacy clients with new per-cell efficiency. In well-designed networks, you can expect higher data rates at the same transmission power levels with Wi-Fi 6 over earlier standards.

Common questions related to clients in enterprise WLAN don't go away with Wi-Fi 6. How many clients can each AP handle? And what throughput should clients expect? As with earlier WLAN technologies, the answers will vary. If you have all Wi-Fi 6 clients on a given cell, the potential answers are different than if you have all legacy clients or a mix of old and new. To understand your Wi-Fi 6 network's health, you need to understand what your client mix is.

Read the fine print on capabilities vs. enabled features

You could get to know what to expect from Wi-Fi 6 by reading industry white papers and other helpful articles. From there, know that some WLAN standards never achieve their potential as written in the body of the standard document.

Wi-Fi 6 promises substantial innovation, but don't expect it all to be turned on in any hardware you buy. On the consumer side, it can be hard to get a good read on what Wi-Fi 6 features are enabled. For enterprise gear, it's all about the code release notes -- and talking to reference accounts. Wi-Fi 6 will be premium-priced for a while, and you can be certain there will be no discounts for capabilities listed on the standard that aren't enabled.

This was last published in April 2021

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