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Sun 16 Dec 2007 02:56 PM

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Power of N

With draft 2.0 of the 802.11n announced, and version 3.0 underway, Barry Mansfield looks at the latest refinements and asks if now is a good time for businesses in the Middle East to make the switch.

With draft 2.0 of the 802.11n announced, and version 3.0 underway, Barry Mansfield looks at the latest refinements and asks if now is a good time for businesses in the Middle East to make the switch.

Why should I change the already existing wireless from its current form? Is it the G standard that has caused problems for me in the past?

It's no revelation that over the past several years, Wi-Fi has transformed the way people connect - both at work and at play. Wi-Fi is straightforward to use, affordable, and provides a convenient way to connect to the Internet at home, in the office and on the move. It has been slow to achieve its full potential, however, with connectivity and coverage problems attracting some criticism.

If you want to stream high-definition video, shift the workforce to VoIP, or deliver content-rich applications, draft 2.0 is the way to go.

802.11n is touted as the answer to this - the breakthrough technology that will enable Wi-Fi networks to do more, faster, over a larger area. When finalised, the 802.11n standard promises to offer the very best connection available for computer networking and home entertainment applications alike - delivering the range, bandwidth, and performance that today's multimedia applications and products need.

Wi-Fi radio signals bounce off walls and obstructions, in the same way that sound waves do. Previous generations of Wi-Fi equipment can't use echoes to improve their performance, so they are designed to "tune out" all but the strongest signal they detect, thereby limiting coverage. While the N standard promises to rectify past mistakes and increase coverage, be sure to run pilots before taking the plunge.

What exactly are the benefits realised by 802.11n products and what does the standard's new draft (version 2.0) talk about?

The benefits of 802.11n include higher throughput (about 120Mbps in practice) than the current standard and a range that's 50 per cent longer, which means up to 400 metres. Also, because of its multiple antennas that can stitch together a fractured signal, it eliminates many indoor spots where the signal would usually be dropped.

Publication of the full standard is expected between October 2008 and March 2009, but major manufacturers were quick to release ‘pre-N', ‘draft n' or ‘(Multimedia In Multimedia Out) MIMO-based' products based on early specifications. In May, D-Link became the first vendor to offer a firmware update for its 802.11n gear, updating it to draft 2.0 compatibility. Manufacturers like Atheros, Intel and Apple, and their customers, must be happy to learn that version 2.0 is compatible with the pre-802.11n products they had already launched. It will only require a minor firmware upgrade for complete compatibility with new products.

802.11n has been a long journey so far (work on the standard began in 2004) but the refinements made by draft 2.0 mean it is now more sensible to consider investing in the technology. However, there might be more changes with draft 3.0.

What features can I expect to have if I decide to invest in 802.11n's draft 2.0 products?

A major change in draft 2.0 has been around the implementation of the 40MHz channel. It has been adjusted to accommodate older 2.4GHz band devices, which may be confused by the wider channel bandwidth.

The new specification calls for the use of two 20MHz bands. Under version 2.0, the system will scan the environment looking for legacy devices that might not understand the wider bandwidth, in which case the 802.11n device will back off and send data over only a single 20GHz band. While this would slow down overall data throughput to a single 20MHz channel, 802.11n's MIMO technology will still give 802.11n faster performance.

Another change in the technology allows an 802.11n device to check to make sure both channels are clear before sending data.

Interoperability means that products from different manufacturers work well together, so users don't get locked into a single brand. Draft 2.0 products of 802.11n work with 802.11a/b/g gear as well, but N users won't realise all its benefits when using it with older devices.

How can I justify investing in these draft 2.0 products?

Sumit Kumar, MEA regional manager at US Robotics, admits that some of these improvements are of little use or consequence to the enterprise. "Although the increased speed sounds impressive, most customers have internet connections that are well served by 802.11g products," he says. "Where the benefits come in is in the range. Wireless signal strength is affected by range and draft 2.0 of 802.11n does a much better job of coping with the weaker signal than the G standard. So in practice the user will have more freedom to use his or her laptop where they really would like to work."

Although more vendors are bringing out draft 2.0 software to fit onto their existing products, the US Robotics product range already featured the protection for legacy products, since this was optional in draft 1.0. As Kumar points out, it only became mandatory for draft 2.0.

If you are still with G products, your need for improved range and to cover earlier dead spots could be the clincher. This is why multiple storey office buildings find the N standard so useful.

Are there any hidden costs when setting up with draft 2.0?

It is the cost of implementation that Kumar feels companies should be looking closely at. "Most IT managers are probably still implementing standard G networks," he says. "IT managers should be looking at the cost implications of the two solutions types, N and G, as the expenses involved in installation are often more than the cost of the products. If you can use slightly fewer access points, the total network cost will reduce."

According to Kumar, if you have a router today and it provides connectivity to all necessary parts of the business premises, there are few benefits to be had in splashing out on new equipment that gives greater coverage. If, however, you are setting up an organisation-wide wireless network for the first time, then investing in draft 2.0 would appear to be the sensible thing to do.

The industry is working hard to ensure that today's products will be upgradeable not only to draft 2.0, but draft 3.0 as well. It is not in the industry's benefit to agree to a new standard that requires all the existing products to be completely redesigned.
Since I have a current wireless implementation that works fairly well, under what circumstances should I look to invest in 802.11n products?

Serjios El-Hage, regional VP at EMW, believes that draft 2.0 can better prepare the enterprise for the demanding applications of tomorrow's business world. "If you have or are planning to use bandwidth hungry applications like video streaming over wireless, IP cameras over wireless or delay sensitive applications like VoIP, or indeed critical applications like PoS, then it makes perfect sense to invest in draft N," El-Hage says.

Many IT managers compare feature to feature - be careful not to forget about feature integration with other network elements.

Efrain Montesino, director of networking EMEA at Belkin, concurs. "You have to remember that almost every laptop shipping today includes the 802.11n specification," he says. "I'd always recommend selecting the correct technology to meet your needs, but bearing in mind that as more applications turn to media rich content, the overall viewing and sharing experience is optimal with the specifications of 802.11n."

If you want to be able to stream high-definition video across the building, shift the entire workforce onto a VoIP platform, or deliver bandwidth-heavy content-rich applications to multiple devices without sacrificing signal strength, draft 2.0 is the way to go.

What are the processes I should follow before finalising on a vendor? Is it necessary to run a pilot or beta before the full implementation?

The RoI calculation, El-Hage says, should also be taken into careful consideration. "I recommend seeking neutral third party published reports. Also, it's a good idea to ask systems integrators to provide an existing customer list, in order to source first hand accounts of how wireless has helped other businesses to improve their bottom line and add a features rich environment to their corporate users and customers." Montesino agrees, adding that most IT managers find it important to pilot test any new equipment being installing into their existing system.

US Robotics' Kumar, however, feels that pilot tests are unnecessary and a precaution too far. "For business users, a reputable local networking company should be able to predict likely performance due to its experience working with a range of networks."

With large network implementations, the use of professional help may help ensure that you don't need a pilot. That being said, it is always better to run a small or limited pilot to help you understand possible glitches and avoid it during the full implementation.

Would implementing 802.11n products involve any change in existing infrastructure?

El-Hage seems to think that too much emphasis is placed on backward compatibility, and points out that businesses have many other issues to consider when deploying a new network. "The solution should be compatible with the existing switches without the need to replace them with the new PoE standard switches or add a local power supply," he says.

"The most common mistake in wireless in general is when the IT director starts comparing SMB products, meaning the gateway and repeater, with the enterprise product." Another big problem area with the G products was that managers did not implement the security features that were built in to the networking products. In some of the new draft N products, security measures can be implemented through a setup wizard at the same time as the network is configured.

Many IT managers compare feature to feature - be careful not to forget about feature integration with other network elements, including switches, RADIUS, Active directory and VLAN roaming, among others.

So the new N products promise tighter security? How can I ensure better security ?

As El-Hage explains, 802.11n as a standard refers to the carrier level (analogous to the LLC level of Ethernet) so although it enhances speed, coverage and reliability, the security issue is actually addressed by other standards like 802.11i.

"There is no direct impact from 802.11n on any security features as such," he says. "But as we are going for higher end products supporting 802.11n, manufacturers are adding more features to the central controller devices to enable better encryption and end user policy enforcement. Trapeze, for example, is the first company to introduce wireless NAC."

As a result of the efforts of manufacturers, then, draft 2.0 wireless products typically have the latest generation of security protection already on board, including government-grade WPA2 encryption, ensuring that only authorised users can connect to the organisational network.

Draft 2.0 of 802.11n products generally offer better security features. Some products feature the Wi-Fi Protected Setup certification, making it possible to configure security at the push of a button or with a short PIN number. However, the responsibility still rests with the end user to ensure that encryption is switched on.

Are there any other snags?

While the latest reviews of 802.11n gear in the trade press have been largely positive, we haven't seen anything near the 200Mbps speeds that the specification envisions. The typical N base station is, in practice, faster than 802.11b/g at similar distances and does indeed boast a greater range.

Turning off 802.11b/g compatibility gives the best performance in terms of both distance and throughput. If satisfied with the quality of network coverage in your office, then US Robotics' recommendation of "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," sounds like the common sense approach.

If you're thinking about replacing your old wireless gear, it's now fair to conclude that 802.11n has reached a point in its development where it's not really worth buying 802.11g equipment. Ensure that whatever 802.11n hardware you buy is draft 2.0 compliant. While doing so, keep in mind that these products are not mature yet and there are likely to be changes in the near future. Initial costs could also be high and RoI might be some time in coming.

Things to keep in mind1. Start with business - like most other IT investments the choice of wireless technology has to follow the lead set by what is needed in terms of the business.

2. Know what you are getting into - for all the promises that 802.11n's draft 2 comes with, you will need to reaslise that the standard is yet to be finalised. Thorough research is needed to understand what the new products can actually add to your business.

3. Always run pilots - do not ever implement a full network before asking vendors and providers to do as full-scale a pilot for you as is possible. This will not only help you to ensure that the technology works, but will also aid in clearing away initial glitches before going into production.

4. Implement in stages - if you decide to go with the N standard, it would be best that you conduct the implementation in stages. In other words, do not throw out your old G standard gear and conduct the implementation over a period of time across separate departments in your firm.

5. Check on security - through products under the new standard boast a higher level of inbuilt security, you would be much better off taking those claims with a pinch of salt and testing them in your organisational environment before taking the plunge.

6. Calculate R0I and TCO - keep in mind that draft N products cost more and therefore, difficult to get RoI from in the short term. Take the time to calculate TCO and eventual RoI.

7. Look at all choices - there are several vendors in the market with draft N products. You do not have to necessarily go with the same vendor as your LAN infrastructure. Do research and test different products before making your choice.

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