Wireless networks now dominate the business landscape and we all pretty much take them for granted. Yet as companies implement more and more unified communications technologies, including real-time voice and video, they are putting considerable strain on their WiFi networks.
The good news is WiFi technology is keeping up with demand and solutions exist that enable companies to build WiFi networks that in many cases may exceed the capacity of their wired Ethernet networks.
Drivers for Change to Wireless LANs: More Devices, UC, Corridor Warriors
In many cases wireless networks are now replacing the wired edge access network. “It’s become a mobile-first environment where if the wireless network goes down businesses can’t accomplish their day to day work,” he says.
A couple of trends are driving this rush to wireless, with the first being the increased number of wireless devices employees use day to day. The norm is becoming three devices: laptop, tablet and smart phone, with some trendsetters adding smart watches. As a result, companies need to support a greater density of devices than they have in the past.
At the same time, the move to mobile UC has “really started to take off in the last year or two,” Gilby says. “We’re talking to a lot of enterprises that have actually rolled out mobile UC and they’re even getting rid of desk phones in a lot of cases.”
What’s more, all these employees and their devices are moving about the office more so than in the past. These “corridor warriors” seem to rarely be in their own office (if indeed they even have their own office), instead moving from one meeting to another or collaborating with colleagues in “huddle rooms” and other sorts of conference rooms – a topic I recently wrote about in another post.
That can be a problem because the drivers and chipsets in many wireless client devices were designed to assume that, once in a building with a wireless LAN, the device would associate with a single wireless access point (AP) – the one that offered the strongest signal. “These devices tend to be pretty sticky,” Gilby says. “I may move into another room that has an access point that’s closer, but those devices traditionally will stay on the old AP.”
Addressing Density and Capacity Issues in Wireless LANs to Support Voice, Video and Collaboration
To deal with the issue Aruba created a technology called ClientMatch that enables APs to determine when a client is better off associating with a different AP. Because the APs have a system-level view of the network, they are in a better position to determine when a given client will have improved performance on a different AP.
“The second piece is you have to design the network well,” Gilby says. “You’ve got to make sure you don’t have coverage holes in the building.” In the past, companies could identify with some confidence certain areas where they could get away with limited or no wireless coverage. But given the trend toward more open office floor plans, those days are pretty much over.
In terms of capacity, the answer is pretty simple: 802.11ac. This latest WiFi standard offers triple the capacity of the previous generation, 802.11n, he says.
That allows for far greater density of devices, which is crucial because wireless bandwidth is a limited resource. Increasing speeds over the same wireless spectrum enables the network to support more devices at the same time.
“Now we’re actually seeing the wireless network is able to exceed the throughput of a gigabit Ethernet cable,” he says.
That’s a key reason companies as well as vendors are adopting the technology so quickly. Another is the preponderance of clients that support the technology; Gilby notes the WiFi Alliance has certified more than 1,450 of them.
To Ensure Proper Performance, Classify and Prioritize Wireless Traffic
Finally, with voice, video and other applications that demand low latency now riding over the WiFi network, companies need a way to prioritize traffic, Gilby says.
“You see organizations using apps like Box and Dropbox where there’s a lot of file sync going on over the wireless network, as well as streaming,” he says. “Video has really taken off in the enterprise and that’s driving up the bandwidth demands.”
Aruba and others have solutions that enable companies to classify applications as well as users, and provide policy based prioritization. Video would get priority over email and certain individual users or user groups may get priority over others.
“In education I may want to provide access to teachers to be able to stream YouTube when they’re teaching a class but I may want to throttle that traffic for students or block it completely,” Gilby says. “Or if I’m doing a call over Skype for Business, be able to prioritize and guarantee that bandwidth so I can place that call and be assured of the call quality.”
Those are some of the highlights of my conversation with Gilby. Check out the podcast to learn more about issues including security, the second wave of 802.11ac which includes technologies including multiple input multiple output (MIMO), as well as how to proactively manage the WiFi network.