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AI World Conference & Expo · Boston, MA · December 11-13, 2017

This syndicated post originally appeared at No Jitter - Recent posts by Zeus Kerravala.

Where speed matters, new Cisco technology provides an
easy, cost-effective upgrade path to 802.11AC Wave 2.

With Ferrari-like speed coming to Wi-Fi this year in the form of 802.11AC Wave 2 and new switch technology that’ll smooth its integration into the enterprise, Italy — home of the Ferrari — was a fitting site for Cisco’s annual European user conference, Cisco Live Milan 2015.

AC Wave 2, despite the lame naming convention of the standard, is the most significant wireless standard ever, blowing the doors off current access speeds — both wired and wireless. While AC Wave 1 brought speeds comparable to Gigabit Ethernet, the current dominant standard for wired access, Wave 2 has a top speed of 6.8 Gbps.

Historically, workers needed to choose between the speed and dedicated performance of a wired connection for applications like VoIP and video and the flexibility of wireless for applications for which performance wasn’t a top priority. But now with Wave 2 workers can have the best of both worlds — speed and mobility. Want to do a video call over Wi-Fi? No problem. Heck, with 6.8 Gbps, do a telepresence session and it will work great. For the first time ever, the performance of wireless isn’t just on par with wired, it’s significantly better.

In practicality, of course, the 6.8 Gbps is only achievable with the right radios and perfect conditions. In all likelihood, Wave 2 will really yield speeds in the range of 2.5 Gpbs to 5 Gbps — but, even still, greatly exceed what’s available with current wired speeds.

In addition to speed, Wave 2 brings something called multi-user MIMO, which allocates dedicated bandwidth to multiple users on the same access point. Previous Wi-Fi versions were shared mediums, so when one user used the network for, say, streaming a video, everyone else experienced a degradation in performance. The easy way to think about this shift is that previous Wi-Fi versions were like running a network on a hub and AC Wave 2 is similar to the performance of a switch.

This transition becomes particularly important as unified communications shifts to mobile devices that can only access the network via Wi-Fi connections. My firm, ZK Research, ran a video survey in 2014 that clearly showed usage of video on mobile devices exceeding the usage on fixed devices. As the WebRTC spec for real-time communications becomes more mature and easier to build into applications, the use of mobile video will go through the roof. This makes the coming of age of wireless well timed.

On the Downside…

However, as is the case with everything, 802.11AC Wave 2 has a dark side, and that’s the impact to the wired network. Even if you’re not a network engineer, the math is easy to do here. If the wireless speeds are anywhere from 2.5 Gbps to 6.8 Gbps and the wired backhaul is 1 Gbps, then there’s a problem. You may be able to drive that Ferrari 200 mph on the autobahn, but when you pull off the exit in downtown Berlin and everyone else is doing 40 mph, the bottleneck of the current road will throttle performance.

So what’s a network manager to do? One suggestion I heard was to run multiple wired connections to a single access point. No offense to anyone who thinks this would be a good idea, but it’s idiotic. Pulling a cable runs anywhere from $200 to $1,000. Add in the cost of additional switch ports, and it’s pretty easy to see this is a bad idea.

Another problem is that Cat 5 Ethernet cables can’t pass speeds greater than 1 Gbps. Also, the Wave 2 access points (APs) will require 30 watts of power over an Ethernet connection where many access switches only support 15 W. Seems like some large problems to overcome.

A Silver Lining

As detailed at this week’s conference, Cisco intends to solve all these problems at once with technology it calls Multigigabit Ethernet. First, Cisco developed a new PHY that enables Cat 5E and Cat 6 to handle speeds of up to 5 Gbps and 10 Gbps, respectively. Second, switch ports are capable of handling multiple speeds, of 100 Mbps, 1 Gbps, 2.5 Gbps, 5 Gbps, and 10 Gbps, depending on how much speed is required. Third, the switch can power the access points with a Power over Ethernet (15 W), PoE+ (30 W), or Cisco’s own UPoE (60 W). Lastly, the Multigigabit technology is available on the existing Catalyst 4000E. Alternatively, customers could choose a 3850 fixed switch that can interface with an existing stack. Cisco also introduced two compact switches for small locations or for use as a transition technology. These are usable in non-Cisco networking environments as well.

Now customers can use the same hardware and cabling and enjoy the benefits of 802.11AC Wave 2 this year. I’m not expecting every company to upgrade every AP to Wave 2. However, where speed matters, Multigigabit Ethernet provides an easy, cost-effective upgrade path.

So, if you’re concerned about VoIP and video killing your Wi-Fi network, don’t be –Multigigabit Ethernet is right around the corner. In fact, as strange as this sounds, enterprises will get better performing UC by running it over AC Wave 2 than they will having run on the wired connection.

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Zeus Kerravala

Zeus Kerravala is the founder and principal analyst with ZK Research. Kerravala provides a mix of tactical advice to help his clients in the current business climate and long term strategic advice.
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