The rapid adoption of IEEE 802.11n as the Wi-Fi standard is transforming the wireless experience for users, and the enterprise network. Here's a round up of the news, issues, trends, and information you can use for keeping up with the fast-changing Wi-Fi world. (See 802.11n reshaping Wi-Fi experience.)
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Our timeline of 11n's development gives a quick overview of some of the key milestones. And we've tracked the deployment and evolution of the first large-scale 11n deployment (based on the then-draft standard): a campus-wide network at Morrisville State College in upstate New York, using gear from Meru Networks.
In fall 2008, Network World Clear Choice Tester David Newman put a handful of 11n access points under the gun. (See "802.11n gear 10 times faster than current Wi-Fi offerings.") There have been a lot of product changes since then, but Newman's thorough approach to the test, and its scale, still is a valuable guide to what to look for, what to look out for, and what to consider in evaluating and buying an 11n WLAN.
The improved throughput and signal quality of 11n compared to 11g and 11a is changing user expectations and IT thinking in early adopters such as colleges and universities and in healthcare. Increasingly, 11n is now accepted as the primary medium for network access; and as such, it's causing IT to rethink Ethernet wiring plans and purchases. See in our 2010 "Back to School" tech projects story, see the section titled "802.11n and all-wireless access."
And answer for yourself the question we posed in our 2009 "Burning Questions for Mobile & Wireless" – "Is it time to cut the Ethernet access cable?"
Prices for 11n gear began dropping almost as soon as the IEEE ratification vote was done. It's a highly competitive market, so don't be afraid to bargain with vendors. See "802.11n price wars already underway" from October 2009.
With 11n, wireless LANs are becoming a critical part of the enterprise network infrastructure, and they have to be managed accordingly. You can read about how the University of Minnesota manages its 9,500 access points in this May 2009 case study, "Managing the largest 802.11n deployment."
Our sister publication, ComputerWorld, has details on six Wi-Fi tools for Microsoft Windows clients, including one to secure your client on a public Wi-Fi hotspot.
The 11n standard, formally ratified in September 2009, won't be changing anytime soon, but IEEE amendments, companion specifications from the Wi-Fi Alliance, and vendor innovations (though proprietary) promise big changes in the way 11n networks perform and are managed. Get an overview with "Major Wi-Fi changes ahead" from May 2010.
One change coming soon is Wi-Fi Direct, from the Wi-Fi Alliance, which will start certification for this recently completed specification in the fall of 2010. The spec defines an easy way for a Wi-Fi device like a laptop or smartphone to connect directly with other Wi-Fi devices, such as a printer, flat-panel TV, or projector. See "Wi-Fi Direct allows device-to-device links."
A longer-term change is Wi-Fi running in a new high-frequency band, 60GHz, the work of the Wi-Gig Alliance and parallel efforts in the IEEE. This next-generation Wi-Fi is aimed at a data rate of up to 7Gbps, covering a space about the size of a house. See "WiGig fast wireless may change Wi-Fi, home networks," an overview of the technology from May 2009.
Within the 11n standard, there's still room for yet greater performance and much improved signal quality and resilience. Several chip vendors, such as Atheros and Quantenna, are developing 11n chips that divide a data stream into four sub-streams, each with a corresponding antenna (most implementations today use two or sometimes three of these sub-streams). The multiple receive and transmit antennas help multiply the capacity of the link and make it possible to create a stronger, cleaner signal more resistant to interference, and able to sustain higher throughput and longer ranges.
Atheros began sampling its chip in June 2010. Quantenna's 4x4 chip is in trials with a number of wireless product manufacturers. Network World wireless blogger Craig Mathias explains in November 2009 blogpost why 4x4 11n emphatically "makes sense."
John Cox covers wireless networking and mobile computing for Network World.
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