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Preparing networks for 802.11ac

The new wireless networking standard 802.11ac is finally here, promising improved reliability, throughput and overall capacity, which will facilitate features such as simultaneous streaming of high-definition (HD) video to multiple clients in homes and businesses, as well as faster wireless synchronisation and backup of large files.

So how should channel partners help enterprise organisations prepare for 802.11ac? Here are some key recommendations. 

Perform a wired network audit 

Robust 802.11ac deployments with three streams and 80MHz channels will probably not exceed the port capacity of gigabit Ethernet switches. Nonetheless, there should be 10Gb uplinks from the switch to the network core – not to connect access points (APs), but to avoid bottlenecks at the switch.

New cable installations should place two uplink cables at every switch unless fibre is used. While many 802.11ac access points will operate on 802.3af power-over-Ethernet (PoE), switches for new deployments should provision 802.3at just in case and for future contingencies. 

Finally, it is important to look for potential performance problems in the network core, and especially in backhaul to the internet. Reports from the network management console can be invaluable in monitoring and analysing such data. 

Plan for coexistence and migration  

Except in rare cases, there should be no need to rip and replace equipment to upgrade to 802.11ac. The best approach is a phased, staged, non-disruptive one.

A good place to start is an 802.11ac deployment in a new physical space not previously covered by Wi-Fi. This creates an opportunity for careful evaluation, experience and tuning. The optimal deployment strategy will likely involve setting aside a 40MHz or 80MHz channel for 802.11ac. 

Given the increasing use of direct forwarding architectures where traffic to and from APs does not flow through a controller, controller upgrades may not be required. However, as controllers evolve with new features, upgrades may be desirable in many dispersed wireless local area network (WLAN) deployments. 

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Re-examine Wi-Fi channel utilisation 

The potential for redesigning Wi-Fi channel allocations must be considered. This may occur automatically through radio management features, but verification with appropriate site survey tools during the initial phase of the 802.11ac deployment is still recommended.

The vastly under-utilised 5GHz band is not likely to create any significant issues, but it may be advantageous to run 802.11ac in 40MHz channels at some locations during initial deployments. Throughput will be lower, but backward-compatibility will improve.

Plan for capacity

Since the advent of enterprise-class wireless LANs more than a decade ago, it has always been advantageous to deploy access points with an emphasis on capacity rather than radio frequency coverage alone. Optimal 802.11ac performance can be sustained by keeping the distance between end points as short as possible. Adopting a dense deployment strategy continues to be a beneficial approach with 802.11ac. 

Assess operations and analyse budgets 

Network management capabilities are critical to the success of any enterprise Wi-Fi deployment. IT organisations and their partners should discuss any anticipated 802.11ac upgrades including the features that will be available to improve ongoing operations.

802.11ac also creates an excellent opportunity to consider unifying wired and wireless management. Enterprise IT organisations should review current and required assurance, compliance and analytics functionality with vendors. 

Updating budgetary models is strongly advised. While some 802.11n and 802.11ac designs have appeared at the upper end of current AP prices, mainstream 802.11ac APs will likely not be much more expensive than 802.11n APs.

Finally, one of the most promising high-yield investments an IT organisation can make is in an improved enterprise-class management console. The right multi-vendor, multisite management console will bring positive benefits in operating expense calculations.

There is no stopping 802.11ac. While upgrades will take some time, it is important to work with your customers to prepare their network now for the arrival of this new technology. Properly planned and executed, this transition can be easy for network operations staff and transparent for users.


Chris Kozup is senior director at Aruba Networks


This was first published in November 2013

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