2010 in Wi-Fi: the Year in Review

By Lisa Phifer

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In the decade since 802.11 made its mark on home networks, wireless LANs standards have undergone three major revisions (a/g/n) and many more product generations. In 2010, 802.11n finally achieved a maturity level where analysts no longer debate whether or not it will replace Ethernet for network access. The only question now seems to be how quickly - and what tweaks are needed to optimize operation, performance, management, and of course ROI.

11n rules the market

According to Rohit Mehra, Director, Enterprise Communications Infrastructure at IDC, the enterprise WLAN market experienced sustained growth this year. By mid-year, 802.11n deployments had accelerated, representing over 65 percent of AP revenue in 2Q10, up from 56 percent in 1Q10 and 45 percent in 2Q09. "2011 looks promising as well," said Mehra. According to Paul DeBeasi, Gartner Research Vice President, the "all wireless" enterprise is fast becoming a reality. "The notion that wireless would replace wired Ethernet for network ACCESS was dismissed as ridiculous two or three years ago," said DeBeasi. "Not so now. Enterprises are increasingly relying upon 802.11n as their dominant method of network access."

Andrew vonNagy, Technical Architect for a Fortune 30 company and independent analyst/author of the Revolution Wi-Fi blog, agreed. "Early adopters began deploying 802.11n in 2009, but 2010 will undoubtedly be the year of 11n," said vonNagy. "Large enterprises wrapped up interoperability and performance testing, formalized best practices and network design, and began deploying very large 802.11n AP roll-outs."

Looking ahead to 2011, vonNagy expects to see broad support for three spatial stream 802.11n in enterprise-class equipment, bumping raw data rates to 450 Mbps. "Enterprises that have been evaluating Wi-Fi as wired Ethernet replacements will begin taking strides to implement this model for a large amount of their staff," he said.

Back to the drawing board

However, higher throughout and broader deployments have exposed architectural weaknesses in some WLAN products. "WLAN architecture wars were back in the air [this year], with emerging vendors pitching controller-less and cloud-based solutions. How the debate evolves in 2011 will be interesting," said Mehra.

According to vonNagy, enterprises have started to challenge the viability of centralized architectures due to behavioral shifts in network use. "802.11n brought higher bandwidth and discussion of Wi-Fi becoming the predominant access technology," he said. "Concerns over controller scalability, throughput, single points of failure, and the desire to optimize traffic flows have challenged [controller vendors] to re-think their architectures to shift more control into distributed APs."

In 2010, that migration began with virtually every controller vendor providing distributed data plane traffic forwarding. "In 2011, look for advancements to distribute control of Quality of Service, security, radio management, and distributed key caching capabilities into APs," said vonNagy. 'Watch for controllers to move into more of centralized management role and smart APs being operationally independent from controllers. Some vendors will begin removing controllers from their architectures completely, but will experience growing pains attempting to support both architectures simultaneously for a period of time," he predicted.

Better management

When it comes to WLAN management, Craig Mathias, Principal, Farpoint Group, sees increasing emphasis on consolidation. "Interference [RF spectrum] management, IDS/IPS, and other assurance functions [are now] appearing in WLAN system products, as opposed to only in standalone assurance products," said Mathias. "We'll [continue to] see security and integrity issues appear in Wi-Fi, and this remains an area ripe for innovation." According to DeBeasi, RF spectrum management systems like Cisco CleanAir that emerged this year will soon become commonplace. "By the end of 2011, virtually every enterprise Wi-Fi vendor will offer AP-embedded spectrum management systems," said DeBeasi. "I think spectrum management systems will have widespread enterprise deployment [although] not everyone agrees with me on this viewpoint."

Devin Akin, longtime CWNP guru, now Chief Wi-Fi Architect at Aerohive, cited another new management trend which emerged during 2010. "Cloud Management of Everything, including Wi-Fi," said Akin. "Right now, Aerohive, Meraki, and Aruba have it. Soon, Cisco and others will have it. It's mandatory. It's awesome. I love it. Once you go cloud, you'll never go back ... trust me on that."

Mathias also sees management heading into the cloud, as computing and network industries embrace virtualization and look for new ways to exploit it. "Expect much greater cloud involvement--Meraki and PowerCloud are pointing the way here and I think [cloud approaches] will become very popular indeed. Virtualization and cost-cutting in general will remain hot topics in 2011 and beyond," he predicted.

Unite and conquer

According to Akin, partnerships and acquisitions became increasingly common this year as a way to expand and complement product line capabilities. Strategic partnerships announced during 2010 include Meru/Solarwinds (network monitoring), Aruba/Azalea (outdoor mesh), and Wildpackets/Ekahau (lifecycle planning and analysis).

Mathias also cited 2010 progress in unified wired/wireless networking, noting announcements from Aruba (AirWave), Meru (SolarWinds), and others. "The Juniper acquisition of Trapeze provides additional evidence that wire and wireless are merging," said Mathias.

In fact, wired/wireless unification was strikingly evident this year than at Interop, where WLAN products were largely displayed by traditional network infrastructure vendors. With a few noteworthy exceptions (most prominently, Xirrus), many pure-play WLAN vendors that had exhibited at Interop in 2009 stayed home this year. However, unified product lines do not necessarily imply bundled packages and pricing. "Larger infrastructure vendors have moved to a piece-meal licensing model that allows them to keep initial CAPEX low," observed Akin. While this trend can make it easier to initiate WLAN deployments, it can also make total investment harder to calculate and compare. Buyers need to become more savvy about what they really need - both today and tomorrow.

Expanded services

Mathias also saw accelerated emphasis on voice and video this year. "Voice is going to become a key driver of enterprise WLAN installations in 2011, and video in general will represent a larger share of all WLAN traffic than ever before next year," he said. "And it's not just YouTube and such - video will become a key corporate communications vehicle over the next few years."

One hot new product contributing to this trend in 2010 was Apple's iPad. As vonNagy put it, "Everyone wants an iPad, including executives. Their ease-of-use, mobile form-factor, and consumer mind-share have executive level management in most organizations pushing IT departments to support iPad access on the corporate network."

Half the iPad product line and many other new consumer electronic devices (e.g., e-Readers) rely upon Wi-Fi as their only method of network connectivity. As a result, wireless network engineers and IT security teams are being challenged to deliver secure Wi-Fi access to these devices. "Careful consideration of security policy changes, network and application security design, and mobile device management platforms have kept IT departments busy scrambling to meet this need," said vonNagy.

"In 2011, look for more enterprises to officially adopt support for consumer devices, owned both by the organization or by individuals, as well as implementation and market growth for mobile device management platforms to give administrators the ability to control access and storage of sensitive corporate data on these devices," vonNagy predicted.

According to Akin, one service expansion that still has not realized its potential is Real-Time Locationing. "RTLS is still expensive, complicated, and not yet mainstream," he said. "But other technologies are coming along to make it more useful, more accurate, and easier to deploy." One example that came along in 2010: hybrid locationing solutions such as that offered by NearBuySystems.

Going mobile

Large or small, nearly every business today has some type of mobility initiative underway. Emerging consumer electronic devices have contributed to this trend, along with this year's newest generation of consumer smartphones, from iPhone 4 to Droid X and Galaxy S.

According to In-Stat, the number of Wi-Fi-enabled devices will continue to grow over the next five years, jumping from over 550 million in 2009 to nearly 1.7 billion in 2015. By 2014, over 500 million phones with embedded Wi-Fi are projected to ship, while e-Reader Wi-Fi attach rates are expected to reach 88 percent.

DeBeasi observed that enterprises have begun to report that the number of Wi-Fi devices per human is greater than one. "In some cases, humans [now] carry two or three active Wi-Fi devices. This trend is going to continue. It will create greater demand for the Wi-Fi network. It will also create more co-channel interference," he said.

Although mobile broadband networks grew faster with "4G" deployments in 2010 - such as Verizon Wireless' LTE launch - carriers continue to struggle with capacity and demand. One recent study by Arieso found that 3G mobile data usage roughly doubled each year since the iPhone's introduction in 2007, with Android phones now creating even more data traffic.

According to vonNagy, "As cellular carriers [in general] and AT&T specifically struggled to keep up with 3G data demands, they increasingly changed their mindset [about] Wi-Fi hotspots from competitive technology to complementary service," he said.

"Rollout and use of Wi-Fi hotspots grew at amazingly sharp rate [in 2010] ... with renewed interest in making Wi-Fi a ubiquitous access technology across locales," said vonNagy. "In 2011, look for additional Wi-Fi hotspot rollout by cellular carriers, as well as retail establishments attempting to attract and influence consumer purchasing habits."

Mathias also sees growing carrier interest in Wi-Fi, but for products materializing in a somewhat different form. "Wi-Fi remains the only wireless technology capable of supporting the mobile triple play. And while the current crop of 4G (marketing definition here) technologies could in theory handle anything reasonable the user desires, the carrier networks lack the capacity to guarantee any kind of service," he said. Mathias expects to see renewed and accelerating interest in carrier Wi-Fi, especially in high-population-density areas. "There's no alternative."

Peering into Wi-Fi's future

Finally, one bit of 2010 Wi-Fi news with more spark than substance: those so-called "white spaces."

White spaces are unused bits of spectrum that existed between analog TV channels, as well as channels vacated during the transition to digital TV. In September, the FCC released white spaces for unlicensed use - the first new swath of unlicensed spectrum to become available in 25 years. This announcement was quickly following by press predictions that this lower-frequency unlicensed spectrum would lead to "Wi-Fi on Steroids."

However, Mathias predicts that Wi-Fi will have no impact at all on the "White Spaces" in 2011. "Despite all kinds of reports to the contrary, Wi-Fi has nothing to do at all at present with the white spaces," he said. "We'll have to wait and see if the Wi-Fi Alliance comes up with anything here. Regardless, that won't be anytime soon."

Ultimately, we'll all have to wait to see what 2011 bring for Wi-Fi and its wireless cousins, including WiGig 60 GHz Wi-Fi and the Wi-Fi Alliance's newly-completed WiDirect. But if 2010 is any indication, we're likely to see continued slow but steady progress towards broader Wi-Fi adoption, availability, and integration, as well as further strides towards more efficient - and more cost effective - WLAN operation.

Lisa Phifer owns Core Competence, a consulting firm focused on business use of emerging network and security technologies. Over the years, Lisa has had the pleasure of meeting and working with many WLAN experts, several of whom graciously shared their insights for this article. A hearty thank you goes out to guest contributors Devin Akin, Paul DeBeasi, Andrew vonNagy, Craig Mathias, and Rohit Mehra.