How to Prepare Your Network for 802.11ac

Take these steps to get ready for new enterprise gear on the way later in the year.

The IEEE 802.11ac wireless LAN standard won't be finalized until the end of the year, but that hasn't stopped 11ac-compatible products from appearing on the market.

A slew of enhancements should improve overall wireless network capacity — particularly important as the proliferation of smartphones and tablets takes hold in the workplace.

What follows are a few action items to consider in preparation for 802.11ac.

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Review the wired network. Don't expect individual 802.11ac-equipped devices to exceed 500-megabit-per-second throughput anytime soon — the fastest three-stream 802.11n devices clock in at around 200Mbps.

However, the potential for a lot more data flowing through the network is clear. Conduct an inventory of all switches, routers, backhaul links and related infrastructure to identify anything in need of upgrading before that first 802.11ac access point hits the network.

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Consider backward-compatible operations. Because it may be awhile before plentiful choices of 802.11ac network adapters are available, many 11ac APs will operate in backward-compatible mode with 802.11n. Most 11ac performance specifications call for the use of 80 megahertz radio channels, as opposed to the 40MHz common for 11n. Thus, operating new 11ac APs in 40MHz 11n mode should be essentially a drop-in with no disruption or adaptation required on the part of current users. These APs can be reconfigured to 80MHz channels when needed.

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Review management and operations requirements. While 802.11ac is not expected to require wholesale replacement of WLAN controllers and management appliances or systems, advances in the functionality of these elements is likely. Begin with a review of current management solutions and overall wired and wireless network operations. What new features or functions are desirable? What about assurance functions such as spectral analysis and intrusion detection and prevention?

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Wait for enterprise-class 11ac solutions. Current 802.11ac offerings are mainly targeted at the residential and small business markets. If only one or two APs are required in a given location, these solutions can be quite valuable and inexpensive. But consumer-grade Wi-Fi products lack the advanced management, security and integrity functions essential in commercial and government deployments. Wait it out until these become available later in the year.

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Plan for capacity, not throughput alone. Some potential 11ac users believe that fewer 802.11ac APs will be required due to higher throughput and (likely) ­improved radio performance. But a shorter distance between endpoints of a connection yields better results. What's more, increasing demand from all those users with multiple devices will require more APs, not fewer. APs are inexpensive relative to the productivity of the ­users they serve, so a strategy of dense deployment continues to make sense.

802.11ac will indeed replace many 11n installations over the next five years, so it's not too early to consider how 11ac will serve a given environment, and to begin planning for the upgrade and gaining initial experience with the technology.

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Apr 10 2013