With a new year at hand, wireless networking is at an interesting juncture. In this article, we’ll take a look at some of the more positive goings-on in the Wi-Fi world, along with the not-so-good that will shape and define the industry in 2016.
We’ll also cover what those in the business of Wi-Fi ought to be thinking about, and present some food for thought for anyone who may be in the market for business WLAN in the months to come. My perspective comes from being a busy wireless network architect and admin, as well as a long-time freelance tech writer.
More, more & more wireless networking
2016 will continue to deliver what the last few years have started: more Wi-Fi in more places. From small businesses to the largest corporations, and at every hospital, school, and farm in between, wireless networking is in high demand.
High demand translates to an increase in our collective Wi-Fi savviness as a society, and ever-more applications being moved to the wireless space. It’s exciting news for designers and installers, but increased demand for Wi-Fi also has a darker side—pervasive wireless can breed an “anyone can do it” mentality, which doesn’t work very well at times. More on this in just a bit.
Security will be crucial, but often botched
IT folks who have been in the wireless game for at least a decade recognize Wi-Fi for the mature technology it has become. The 802.11ac standard has brought us into the fifth distinct generation of wireless networking, and the latest enterprise offerings have abundant security features to leverage in an increasingly hostile world that brings large-scale breaches on a weekly basis.
2016 will see a further raising of public awareness of the risks that come with a hyper-connected world, but whether wireless customers tighten their armor against obvious threats remains to be seen. Having the tools at hand are one thing, but knowing how to use them is another, and there’s a lot of room for error when trying to implement wireless and network security.
There will be innovation aplenty … with a dose of bad press
From the Internet of Things to wearable client devices to whatever’s coming out of the LTE-U discussions (where mobile carriers are moving in on unlicensed 5GHz spectrum that’s long been the de facto somewhat exclusive domain of Wi-Fi), innovation in the wireless space is constant.
Throughout 2016, we’ll see the continued aggressive uptick in 11ac clients and Wave 2 infrastructure, along with continued evolution of the slew of features that are the hallmark of today’s WLAN super-systems. From application visibility to access control and self-managing RF settings, the brainpower that’s brought us to where we are today for enterprise Wi-Fi is impressive.
As exciting as it all is, working in Wi-Fi has always been a bit like herding cats. Despite the maturity of the 802.11 standard, the current client device market suffers from a flawed (and sloppy) division between consumer and enterprise devices, with divergent feature sets, differing quality of radio technologies, and a maddening range of security features that runs from anemic to robust. But they ALL find their way to the business WLAN sooner or later. WLAN admins will continue to hold this increasingly heavy bag through the year to come.
Compounding the challenge for WLAN administrators, we’re seeing a lot of unqualified IT writers turning their attention to wireless as it claims more of the network spotlight. There’s a lot of bad information being spread, whether it be off-the-chart claims of what 11ac can do or declaring some consumer-grade gadget the Next Big Thing for corporate boardrooms. Expect to have to do fact-checking on a lot of what you read about wireless in 2016.
Industry overseers are wildcards
There are a number of organizations that shape the Wi-Fi world as we know it, whether we’re WLAN providers, users, or both. The FCC and the Wi-Fi Alliance top the list, and both are at a weird place where they aren’t doing the WLAN great service right now.
2016 feels like it’s starting off with Wi-Fi’s most important regulatory agency adrift and out of touch on a number of important topics. Sadly, the Wi-Fi Alliance — which has charged itself with the important task of interoperability testing for WLAN products — has shown greater interest in selling more Wi-Fi than in bringing long overdue reform to address shortcomings in a range of devices and capabilities.
At the FCC, Wi-Fi-related decisions, like the Marriot-style “jamming” cases, have been strange, with poor messaging, and have fallen along party lines. Commissioner comments often do a better job of illuminating the agency’s dysfunction than explaining what the WLAN community is supposed to take away from the FCC’s actions.
I hope to see better out of both organizations in 2016, but I don’t have high hopes.
How to come out on top
I’ve painted a fairly challenging picture for Wi-Fi in 2016 here, and that’s because the WLAN landscape is pretty darned complicated these days. If you claim to be a wireless “doer,” hopefully you’re keeping current with this rapidly changing (and utterly fascinating) corner of the network world.
Training and certification is a must, whether it comes from the vendor-neutral CWNP or from vendors like Cisco and Aruba. It’s pretty easy to have skills go stale otherwise, so this is a great time to resolve to get and stay current.
For those shopping for Wi-Fi, it’s as important to look as closely at who is doing the system design and installation as it is to find good WLAN infrastructure components. Not everyone can “do” Wi-Fi in a business setting, and even small environments often need a professional touch. Make sure your wireless hired guns have credentials, experience on the products they sell, reputation, and the ability to help you define your coverage and security requirements with two-way conversation.
Find the right partner going into the new year, and they can help navigate the minefield of complexity that will define many WLAN projects in 2016.