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This content is part of the Essential Guide: Enterprise wireless networking: The Wi-Fi takeover
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Is it the end of the line for wired Ethernet?

802.11ac expansion has eliminated the need for a wired network; networking pros should plan for integrated security and application management.

Wireless-only use is exploding, so is it finally time for you to ditch your wired network? Irwin Lazar explores wireless user trends, discusses how 802.11ac can finally replace wired Ethernet, and what networking pros should do to plan for converged security and application management in a wireless only world.

Ever since the introduction of enterprise wireless networking based on the IEEE 802.11b standard in the late 1990's, the possibility of replacing expensive wired networks with wireless has enticed network architects and engineers. "What if it were truly possible to eliminate cable runs, wiring jacks, wall plates, loads of Ethernet switches, and all the work involved with moves/adds/changes and cable maintenance?" they asked.

Deploying 802.11ac isn't as simple as just upgrading access points.

Unfortunately, the answer up until recently has always been no. Wireless networks have always functioned best in most offices as an adjunct to the wired network, providing access for those working in huddle rooms, open areas, conference rooms and cafeterias. Wireless LAN (WLAN) speeds and capacities couldn't match those of 100 Mb or 1 GbE wired connections. Standards like 802.11b and 802.11g used the unlicensed 2.4 GHz band of spectrum, meaning potential interference problems from microwave ovens, cordless phones or dozens of other devices operating in that band.

The introduction of 802.11n, coupled with greater vendor support for use of the restricted 5GHz spectrum helped to provide more bandwidth with reduced risk of interference, but the lack of the ability of most wireless LANs to prioritize WLAN traffic means that it is still difficult to support latency-sensitive applications, such as voice, video conferencing, virtualized applications and apps used for data entry. WiFi networks also can’t accurately track user location, meaning that those attempting to use their WLAN for voice over IP clients running on laptops or softphones ran the risk of emergency responders not being able to locate the source of the incoming call.

With the formal publication of 802.11ac in 2013, the prospects for replacing wired networks with wireless networks greatly improved. 802.11ac provides more channels, which means more capacity. Bandwidth capacity has grown to over 400 Mbps, though practical deployments likely won't achieve that rate. Thanks to its inclusion of previous standards for application prioritization, 802.11ac access points can recognize and prioritize latency-sensitive traffic.

However, deploying 802.11ac isn't as simple as just upgrading access points. Network architects must examine the uplink speeds and upgrade where necessary. They must ensure that coverage is ubiquitous throughout the organization, even in the nooks and crannies that so often limit Wi-Fi signal propagation. And they should look at the increasing use of application recognition and software-defined networking within WLAN access points to enable support for even encrypted telephony and video conferencing applications.

One thing is sure, the wireless-only worker is not only here today, but their numbers will increase. Already almost 20% of a typical enterprise user population never connects to the wired network; that number will continue to grow as laptops and tablets replace desktops, and open work areas replace cubicle farms. Finally, the growth of 802.11ac-compliant devices, especially the recently introduced Apple iPhone 6, will only drive demand for Wi-Fi bandwidth. Make sure your WLAN plans reflect the dual reality of more users and devices, and more demand for bandwidth, and also investigate the potential of 802.11ac to finally replace your wired network.

About the author:
Irwin Lazar is the vice president and service director at Nemertes Research, where he develops and manages research projects, develops cost models, conducts strategic seminars and advises clients. Irwin is responsible for benchmarking the adoption and use of emerging technologies in the enterprise in areas including VoIP, unified communications, video conferencing, social computing, collaboration and advanced network services.

This was last published in December 2014

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What steps has your company taken to upgrade to 80211ac?
For 2015, my company has decided to upgrade our Internet servers to the 802.11ac currently available. We are doing this because of the great speed bumps this new protocol offers. Prior to our implementing this, we have come up with a very detailed strategy to slowly make the transition. We have out tech department using a deliberate schedule of bring down certain routers each day while new 802.11ac routers are installed to maintain our workflow.
Maybe traditional devices alleviate demand for wired ports, but IoT devices have me wondering. There's a big switch vendor pushing IoT for a reason...
While desirable, wired networks still have their place. This includes in secure networks and for redundancies in case the wireless networks fail or are down.
@Irwin - I think the title of your piece is misleading, as while 11ac is displacing wired ethernet in the enterprise and in homes, WiFi will never replace wired connections in the datacenter.