We're now seeing a good number of access points, or APs, based on the new 802.11ax specification. Yet this standard, also known as Wi-Fi 6, represents more than just an uptick in speed.
In truth, Wi-Fi 6 is all about improving the wireless technology's overall capacity -- ensuring that end users can send data across the wireless network with minimal latency.
As the amount of users, devices and traffic continues to rise -- including time-bounded traffic like telephony and streaming video -- .11ax is exactly what's required today. The wireless standard gets end-user traffic moving in the least amount of time and over the least amount of bandwidth. As a result, we believe 802.11ax, over the next five years or so, will become the dominant Wi-Fi technology.
Transition to Wi-Fi 6 still being determined
If Wi-Fi 6 is so good then why will it take that much time to be deployed? While we expect 802.11ax specification gear to begin flying off the shelves later this year, it's important to remember that infrastructures based on the current .11ac standard have yet to be completely installed, much less fully depreciated.
Moreover, .11ac is doing a pretty good job of addressing today's network demands. The gains in throughput and capacity promised in .11ax may not justify a wholesale replacement in the near term.
Also, clients supporting the new standard have yet to be released. Early adopters will likely have to deal with immature firmware and drivers. At least two waves of .11ax products are expected -- as was the case with .11ac -- and it's likely some buyers will choose to wait before buying .11ax gear.
All this means enterprises almost certainly have some time to get this deployment right, and with this upgrade in particular, that's important. Once you move to the 802.11ax specification, it's likely you'll be using the technology for at least 10 years. The IEEE 802.11 Working Groups will continue to evaluate new technologies -- just as it did with .11ad and .11ay -- but .11ax will be the mainstream wireless foundation for some time to come.
What you need to know now to get ready
With that in mind, what should networking shops be doing now to get ready for 802.11ax? Here's a list of key activities that belong on the front burner:
Talk with your vendor. As noted, we're expecting all the major vendors to have 802.11ax products available this year, most likely by Q3. These will be Wave 1 implementations and may not have all the features that a given installation may require in order to justify an upgrade. While some additional capabilities may be added via firmware upgrades over time, some will require new hardware -- so be certain you understand your vendor's roadmap and timing.
The client situation is more challenging. Few .11ax-capable clients will be released in 2019, but the next iPhone could be the major exception here. Complicating the landscape is the emergence of 5G and how that standard will be supported by next-generation devices.
As a result, .11ax APs may instead be operating in .11ac or even .11n modes. There is nothing wrong with that, and the backward-compatible ability of an 802.11ax specification radio may improve performance of legacy systems. Again, talk with your vendor and request any performance data it may have regarding backward-compatibility.
Examine your wired network. Given the multigigabit speeds possible with .11ax, it's time to consider that looming switch port question: Will single 1 Gbps ports be sufficient? Yes, in fact, they will in many cases. Or will 2 x 1 Gbps be required? Or is it time to consider 2.5/5 Gbps per port switches. Or, as it will be required eventually, should you upgrade the entire underlying wired infrastructure? What about 10 Gbps ports or even fiber?
The wired network is another key point to discuss with vendors as they review the features of their .11ax APs. And, equally important, it's probably time to make sure 802.3at power over Ethernet is in place; most .11ax APs will require it.
Review key operational elements. Associated upgrades to management, security and Wi-Fi assurance functionalities are also on the horizon. Determine what you may need and compare your requirements against what your vendor is making available.
Conduct lab testing and perform a limited deployment test. It's not too early to begin experiments and controlled internal deployments, but the limited availability of .11ax clients could hamstring meaningful evaluations -- at least for the near term.
The 802.11ax specification represents a significant leap forward, and because of improvements in price and performance, it's likely IT shops everywhere will use this technology for many years to come. The transition between .11ac and .11ax offers enterprises and other organizations some breathing room, but for those eagerly awaiting the benefits of .11ax, it's time to get to work.