What’s Next for Enterprise Wireless LANs?

Recent announcements from WLAN industry leaders show that even in the face of playing-field-leveling developments like 802.11ac, there are still enormous opportunities for differentiation and customer-facing benefits.

I've had several interesting conversations with attendees at recent Network World Wireless Infrastructure events regarding the future of enterprise-class wireless LAN systems. I've been theorizing that the advent (really a landslide at this point) of 802.11ac represents the last "big" advance in 802.11 standards, and, almost by definition, this implies a slowing in the rate of underlying innovation - something that has kept the WLAN industry growing and diverse. If the base-level technology is now established to that degree, the playing field is indeed leveling, and what the industry will do for differentiation from this point forward is a very interesting question. Recent announcements (check out the links inside of the press releases linked below for more information in each case) from industry leaders  (in alphabetical order below) point to some interesting possibilities here:

  • Aerohive Networks recently went public, and in fact announced their .11ac APs (the 370 and 390) more than six months ago. If you look carefully, though, Aerohive is already way past WLANs alone - they have applications software for education, routers, switches, and a Mobility Suite product that includes identity management, client management, and partnerships with MDM vendors
  • Aruba Networks announced a Next Generation Mobility Firewall featuring deep packet inspection for improved performance based on application behavior, an Interactive Unified Communications Dashboard inside of Airwave for enhanced visibility into UC applications, particularly Microsoft Lync, ClearPass Exchange, a set of APIs to create greater integration with MDM functionality and beyond, Auto Sign-On, an SSO capability, and AirGroup, which provides links to DLNA and UPnP. Aruba's current marketing theme is #GenMobile, and they recently published a large (5,000 participant) survey of the general public across regions of the globe to learn more about how mobility affects many aspects of contemporary life, but particularly with respect to work style and habits. They do draw some distinction between the younger (ages 18-35) workers implied by the hashtag, but the results are really quite broad-based and interesting regardless.
  • Cisco announced the Aironet 2700 Series 802.11ac AP, a lower-cost alternative to the company's flagship 3700. This is a 3x4:3 product, and is available in both internal and external antenna versions. They also announced their Enterprise Mobility Services Platform, a "unified mobility environment" aimed at developers, and an 8.0 release of Mobility Service Engine (MSE) software, improving location and tracking support. There's also an SDK here as well.
  • HP announced the HP Cloud Managed Network, a cloud management platform aimed at SMBs, new 802.11ac APs (the cloud-managed 365, the 560, which is based on SDN, and the wall-jack form-factor 517), and new unified controllers (the 870 and 850 as well. The also announced new integration between their IMC management console and MDM services from Citrix and MobileIron, and security and location applications as well.
  • Meru Networks announced two new two-stream (867 Mbps) .11ac APs, including the wall-plate 122 and the more traditional 822 with the objective for the latter to offer a lower-cost mainstream product.
  • Motorola Solutions announced a new series of controllers under their WiNG 5 architecture, including the VX 9000, which is virtualized, the appliance-based EX 7500 that also hosts applications, and EX 3500 series Ethernet Switches. Motorola also announced enhancements to its AirDefense assurance product line.
  • Ruckus Wireless announced their first 802.11ac AP, the ZoneFlex R7000, and back in February announced their SPoT cloud-based location and tracking solution.
  • Xirrus also recently announced a two-stream 802.11ac AP, the XR-620. A really interesting feature here is that this AP can be purchased for 802.11n-only use, and then software-upgraded to .11ac, and two .11ac-capable radios are included. Xirrus is of course best known for their family of Wi-Fi arrays, but their AP line really makes them a full-range supplier of enterprise-class solutions.

Analysis? A couple of points:

  • First, abandon all doubt that .11ac is replacing .11n - today. Except in very limited or unbelievably-cost-contained situations, I can't see further installations of .11n making any sense. The two-stream products from Meru and Xirrus should appeal to cost-sensitive buyers, but (almost) every major enterprise-class vendor is shipping .11ac today, and at prices at most slightly higher than their 802.11n counterparts. And speaking of Meru and Xirrus, I really like the idea of APs with dual .11ac radios. Why deploy more 2.4 GHz. radios? Leave the current APs in place and overlay with 5-GHz. More on the options and strategies for .11ac deployment late this month or early next.
  • Second, notice that pure-play "wireless LAN" companies are fading into history. The trend towards broader products lines has been in place for some time, but innovations in WLAN system architecture and features, broader product lines including most importantly PoE switches managed from the same console as the WLAN, and even all the way to applications software (or at least APIs), are turning many of these firms into networking companies, applications platforms, and even integrated IT suppliers.
  • And, finally, location and tracking is clearly going to have a big year in 2014. Given the developments noted above, plus all the buzz around iBeacon (which is really more presence than location), and this is a capability that is going to see massive adoption and even more innovation over the next few years.

And, based on recent briefings, there's a lot more to come. Stay tuned.

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