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The WLAN standards alphabet keeps growing

By , Network World
December 13, 2004 12:09 AM ET

Network World - The bad news is the alphabet of IEEE standards for wireless LANs keeps expanding. The good news is you can ignore a lot of it, at least until the new technology starts showing up in actual WLAN products.

Some projects in the 802.11 Working Group, which oversees wireless-LAN standards, are nearing completion. Other groups, such as those working on mesh networks and for fast roaming, are just starting up.

Most network executives will never have to worry about the fine print in these technical standards, which cover things such as modulation schemes, access protocols and authentication, or whether to transmit power in the Layer 1, or physical layer.

Most of the worrying is done by wireless chip makers, WLAN product manufacturers and software engineers.

Of course the standards are only one part of the decision making involved in deploying an enterprise WLAN. Corporate suppliers might swear they support 802.11i, the recently completed standard that fixes many weak points in WLAN security.

"But that's almost a meaningless statement," says Sheung Li, product line manager and 802.11 liaison for wireless chip maker Atheros Communications. "The question is, what is the vendor actually offering in terms of capabilities and tools for a full security implementation?"

After all, standards rarely introduce a new technology. Instead, they create common ways for a WLAN to be created, monitored and managed. Vendors use the standards as a foundation and add unique or at least distinguishing features and functions atop the standard. In many cases, vendors will have their own code to do a given WLAN function and then replace it when an 802.11 standard is ratified. For example, Airespace has written its own code for radio resource measurement and management in its WLAN switch product line; when the 802.11k standard is ratified, the vendor will upgrade its products with code based on that.

Most vendors have at least one person who tracks or participates in these IEEE groups. They should be able to give customers a road map of their implementation plans.

The Wi-Fi Alliance, an industry trade group promoting 802.11 WLANs, is taking on an expanding role in creating certification tests for WLAN products as new IEEE standards are ratified. The alliance is finalizing test programs for the 802.11d and h standards and has plans to introduce others next year.

The alliance also has a role in refusing to sanction new WLAN features that vendors introduce ahead of final IEEE ratification. A few vendors, mainly in the consumer sector, have just started introducing WLAN access points that use multiple antennas and special algorithms to boost throughput. This technology, called multiple input multiple output, is a likely candidate for the 802.11n standard. But that work has only just begun.

"We want to discourage any use of terms suggesting that [802.11n] is real and that products can be 'compliant'" at this stage, says Frank Hanzlik, the alliance's managing director.

Meanwhile, the starring role in 802.11 standards surely goes to the recently formed 802.11n Task Group, which is charged with creating a standard for WLANs with at least 100M bit/sec throughput, compared with 20M to 25M bit/sec today. The group is sifting through scores of technical proposals. Don't expect a final standard until sometime in 2007.

But there are plenty of other WLAN advances completed or in the works. Some of the lesser-known or more recent standards work on 802.11 are:

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