Tuesday, 11 June 2013

802.11ac Macbooks

The Apple Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC) has kicked off and one of the things I was keeping a lookout for was new WiFi developments to see how how it would affect our network.

It seems the Macbook Air's (here) have been given a refresh and now come with 802.11ac. You can also bet that the next iPhone will have it too. The HTC One and Samsung Galaxy S4 are already released 802.11ac enabled handsets, but as the iPad drove the deployment of 'Wireless Everywhere' in our institution, Apple will likely be the driving force to upgrade to 802.11ac availability.

The goal of the 802.11ac standard is to provide data rates of 1Gbps on a single radio. It makes greater use of MIMO to achieve these rates and only uses the 5GHz band.

Why it is not time to deploy 802.11ac yet

We have had a few meetings with our suppliers and Cisco and discussed the 3600 access point. This AP was built with the ability to attach modules at a later date. One of the modules that was announced was the 802.11ac module. It slots in the back and screws down, leaving a slightly fatter access point.

Problem 1: You will need to change all your mounting brackets. As the AP is fatter with the module connected it will not fit on the standard AP bracket that comes with all your Cisco AP's. The new bracket will come with the module but, if you are like us, you have some AP's in some very hard to reach places.

Problem 2: Either upgrade switches or lose 2.4GHz. The AP can require 20 watts with all radios enabled. This means using PoE+ switches. If you turn off 2.4GHz on the AP then the requirement goes back to standard 802.3af 15.4 watts. So, in many you cases, you may need to choose to upgrade your infrastructure or lose features. Most of your clients are likely to be using 2.4GHz.

Problem 3: Cost. You may have the PoE+ switches already, you may have the 3602 models (if not, they are at the expensive end of Cisco's product range of between £600-£800), you may already be running Cisco software version 7.2 or later, and you may also be able to replace all the brackets without getting contractors involved. However, you will still need to spend around £320 on each module.

Problem 4: Planning. There is not a lot of planning and survey equipment that is able to carry out 802.11ac surveys. This makes installation decisions more difficult. At present the popular Fluke tools did not seem to have 802.11ac capability. Whether these can be updated via a module or a trade-in for a new model is not yet clear.

Problem 5: Two uplinks. Although I have mainly focussed on what we know from Cisco, some vendors may try to provide additional power by having two connections and help to achieve speeds beyond 1Gbps.

The next Cisco wireless products (possibly called a 4600) are likely to have 802.11ac built in. Hopefully this will be able to drive down the price and by then many institutions will be on one of the newer versions of wireless software.

From the non-enterprise perspective there are a number of Buffalo, Linksys and Netgear 802.11ac routers and adapters being released. A number of laptops and docking stations too are hitting the market. High-end smartphones too seem to be pushing the technology. It seems that ac will grow much faster than when 802.11n was announced and ratified, but we are not in a position to change everything just yet.