Next up for WiFi

New developments like 802.11ac ensure WiFi keeps up with exploding demand

Wi-Fi is blossoming in the enterprise, proving critical, as it is, to the agile, mobile workforce, and new technologies like gigabit Wi-Fi ensure the capabilities keep up with exploding demand. We assess the developments and emerging trends, and chart out where we're going next.

To illustrate the level of dependence the organization has on Wi-Fi, Riverside Medical Center calls codes over the PA system -- much like in medical emergencies -- when the network goes down. "Wireless is such a multifaceted part of the network that it's truly a big deal," he says.

And getting bigger. Besides the fact that organizations are finding new ways to leverage Wi-Fi, workers have tasted the freedom of wireless, have benefited from the productivity boost, and are demanding increased range and better performance, particularly now that many are showing up with their own devices (the whole bring your own device thing). The industry is responding in kind, introducing new products and technologies, including gigabit Wi-Fi (see "Getting ready for gigabit Wi-Fi"), and it is up to IT to orchestrate this new mobile symphony.

"Traffic from wireless and mobile devices will exceed traffic from wired devices by 2017," according to the Cisco Visual Networking Index. While only about a quarter of consumer IP traffic originated from non-PC devices in 2012, non-PC devices will account for almost half of consumer IP traffic by 2017, Cisco says.

Cisco Visual Networking Index

IT gets it, says Tony Hernandez, principal in Grant Thornton's business consulting practice. Wi-Fi is no longer an afterthought in IT build-outs. "The average office worker still might have a wired connection, but they also have the capability to use Wi-Fi across the enterprise," says Hernandez, noting the shift has happened fast.

"Five years ago, a lot of enterprises were looking at Wi-Fi for common areas such as lobbies and cafeterias and put that traffic on an isolated segment of the network," Hernandez says. "If users wanted access to corporate resources from wireless, they'd have to use a VPN."

Hernandez credits several advances for Wi-Fi's improved stature: enterprise-grade security; sophisticated, software-based controllers; and integrated network management.

Also in the mix: pressure from users who want mobility and flexibility for their corporate machines as well as the ability to access the network from their own devices, including smartphones, tablets and laptops.

Where some businesses have only recently converted to 802.11n from the not-too-distant past of 802.11a/b/g, they now have to decide if their next Wi-Fi purchases will support 802.11ac, the draft IEEE standard that addresses the need for gigabit speed. "The landscape is still 50/50 between 802.11g and 802.11n," Hernandez says. "There are many businesses with older infrastructure that haven't refreshed their Wi-Fi networks yet."

What will push enterprises to move to 802.11ac? Heavier reliance on mobile access to video such as videoconferencing and video streaming, he says.

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