Cautious about 802.11n

North American organizations are shying away from “n,” and not merely because the standard hasn’t been finalized

It's no secret that enterprises are wild about mobility - just check soaring sales of smartphones and laptops.

But wireless in the enterprise hasn't yet reached the dream of flowing business-critical applications across an all (or mostly) wireless internal network.

Ironically, that dream is near and yet so far away. The enabling technology, the IEEE Wi-Fi 802.11n standard, which promises better wireless predictability, reliability as well as speeds of at least 600Mpbs, has been in Draft 2.0 mode for some time.

Organizations who want it right now can buy access points based on the draft from veteran Cisco Systems to upstart Meru Networks.

Yet most North American organizations are shying away from "n," and not merely because the standard hasn't been finalized. That won't be done by the IEEE until next year, by all ­accounts.

The Wi-Fi Alliance, an industry trade group, insists the draft standard will be close to the final and that hardware will simply be updated through software. Sales of "n" gear so far "exceeded all expectations," insists Edgar Figueroa, the group's executive director. This year nearly half of the Wi-Fi chipsets shipped will include the ability to use 802.11n.

Tremendous interest

Industry analysts and some network manufacturers say most organizations have tremendous interest in the technology. But at the same time they acknowledge that many buyers are holding on to their chequebooks.

802.11n is what industry analysts call a disruptive technology - that is, disruptive to existing Wi-Fi networks using the 802.11a, b or g standards. Network managers have to rip and replace all their access points because "n" doesn't play nicely with its slower siblings, says Nick Jones, research vice-president and distinguished analyst at Gartner who specializes in mobile and wireless technologies.

They may have to rework their wireless coverage areas, upgrade their backbone wiring to 1Gbps, and if running Power over Ethernet, find more power.

And why rush if only a minority of laptops and dual-mode smartphones have "n" chips?

"We don't expect 11n shipments will take over classic b/g in corporations until 2010," says Jones.

Consider this telling statistic: According to IDC, unit shipments of wireless enterprise LAN products worldwide (excluding NICs) dropped 7.4 per cent between the fourth quarter of last year and the first quarter of this year.

"We haven't seen a decline like that in a while," says Dan Corsetti, IDC's senior enterprise wireless analyst.

The fact that 11n access points still cost three times as much as b/g hardware is a factor, he says, but the requirement to either rip out existing 802.11 networks or only install 11n in new buildings is a "huge impediment." Remember those vendor press releases proudly announcing wins? Read them carefully. Corsetti says they aren't migrations, but greenfield installations.

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Howard Solomon

Network World Canada
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