A lot of people have been talking recently about the upcoming IEEE wireless standard 802.11ax. If you haven’t already heard about this next generation of wireless, several vendors such as Aruba and Cisco have already published detailed white papers to help you through the details. With the standard expected to be finalized sometime in 2019, there are still some unknowns about what will end up coming to market, but it looks to be promising.
Much like 802.11ac before it, 802.11ax will be rolled out in two waves. Exact feature-to-wave commitment hasn’t been locked in, but Aruba’s white paper gives a reasonable view at the time of its writing. At the very least, the 802.11ax standard is expected to give us reduced client power consumption, improved spectral efficiency and increased performance in dense environments. These enhancements are intriguing but there is still some uncertainty until the specification is “frozen.” That doesn’t mean that organizations need to sit on their heels until the new products are available; there are still some important factors to consider before even buying a single 802.11ax access point.
One of the specifications of 802.11ax is to allow for 8×8 MU-MIMO radio capabilities. As we found with 802.11ac Wave 2 and 4×4, more radio chains typically dictate more power needed to the access point. We can assume at a minimum that these new 802.11ax access points will need PoE+ (802.at max. 30W) power to function. Depending on their needs some organizations may even consider future proofing to “4PPoE” (802.3bt max 60W) or Cisco’s proprietary Universal Power over Ethernet (UPoE). Now is a good time to take stock in your current PoE capabilities to determine if you are ready today or perhaps need some refreshing at your edge or inline power solutions.
Vendor Hardware and Code Requirements
It’s no surprise that with the increasing amount of capabilities and features being released that vendors also release new hardware and software platforms to keep up with the computing requirements. For instance, within the last 12 months both Cisco and Aruba have either sunset old hardware platforms, released access point models requiring a newer code base or both. For many organizations, moving to 802.11ax might not be as simple as just buying the latest in access points. Before rushing to build a budget for those new access points, it might be a good idea to take stock of where the rest of the wireless infrastructure stands and what upgrades may need to occur before (or even as a part of) the drive towards 802.11ax. Larger organizations may even need to come up with phased upgrade approaches to support longer lifecycle devices which may not be supported on newer code or hardware. Additionally, code and hardware upgrades can have a drag-along effect requiring additional components such as management software, location/analytics appliances and third-party integrated services among other things to be upgraded at the same time. Often, these additional items are not considered in a simple access point upgrade, so it’s worth the time to understand the dependencies in your infrastructure to avoid any surprises.
Wireless experts everywhere know that the client device truly drives the performance (real or perceived) of the wireless network. Frequently, new wireless features end up partially implemented or even completely omitted due to legacy client devices lacking support. Very often, the network or wireless team knows this is a problem but the procurement or end-user support teams do not. As we are nearing the final standardization of 802.11ax, there will be more and more “draft” versions of chips hitting the market and grabbing the attention of those groups. This lends itself to be a fantastic time for the organization to discuss client lifecycle expectations, refresh needs and timelines. Developing device chipset standards is also extremely helpful in troubleshooting and driver management down the line. One of the huge benefits of 802.11ax is its backwards compatibility with the previous standards. If the organization can’t wait to refresh devices, there is solace in the fact that an 802.11ac Wave 2 client implemented today will still perform well on your 802.11ax access point in the future.
Many organizations are in the same boat right now asking “should I wait for 802.11ax?” Regardless of the desire to be either technologically conservative or on the bleeding edge, the aforementioned considerations will play an important part in any organization’s migration to 802.11ax.