2010: The Enterprise Wi-Fi Year in Review

Thanks to 802.11n, there’s a good chance 2010 was the year a wireless LAN became your default network access method. This retrospective from Wi-Fi Planet looks at the major deals, improvements in technology and changes in the market that pushed Wi-Fi ahead in the enterprise.

In the decade since 802.11 made its mark on home networks, wireless LANs standards have undergone three major revisions (a/g/n) and many more product generations. In 2010, 802.11n finally achieved a maturity level where analysts no longer debate whether or not it will replace Ethernet for network access. The only question now seems to be how quickly – and what tweaks are needed to optimize operation, performance, management, and of course ROI.

11n rules the market

WLAN market experienced sustained growth this year. By mid-year, 802.11n deployments had accelerated, representing over 65 percent of AP revenue in 2Q10, up from 56 percent in 1Q10 and 45 percent in 2Q09. “2011 looks promising as well,” said Mehra. According to Paul DeBeasi, Gartner Research Vice President, the “all wireless” enterprise is fast becoming a reality. “The notion that wireless would replace wired Ethernet for network ACCESS was dismissed as ridiculous two or three years ago,” said DeBeasi. “Not so now. Enterprises are increasingly relying upon 802.11n as their dominant method of network access.”

Andrew vonNagy, Technical Architect for a Fortune 30 company and independent analyst/author of the Revolution Wi-Fi blog, agreed. “Early adopters began deploying 802.11n in 2009, but 2010 will undoubtedly be the year of 11n,” said vonNagy. “Large enterprises wrapped up interoperability and performance testing, formalized best practices and network design, and began deploying very large 802.11n AP roll-outs.”

Looking ahead to 2011, vonNagy expects to see broad support for three spatial stream 802.11n in enterprise-class equipment, bumping raw data rates to 450 Mbps. “Enterprises that have been evaluating Wi-Fi as wired Ethernet replacements will begin taking strides to implement this model for a large amount of their staff,” he said.

Back to the drawing board

However, higher throughout and broader deployments have exposed architectural weaknesses in some WLAN products. “WLAN architecture wars were back in the air ‘this year’, with emerging vendors pitching controller-less and cloud-based solutions. How the debate evolves in 2011 will be interesting,” said Mehra.

According to vonNagy, enterprises have started to challenge the viability of centralized architectures due to behavioral shifts in network use. “802.11n brought higher bandwidth and discussion of Wi-Fi becoming the predominant access technology,” he said. “Concerns over controller scalability, throughput, single points of failure, and the desire to optimize traffic flows have challenged ‘controller vendors’ to re-think their architectures to shift more control into distributed APs.”

In 2010, that migration began with virtually every controller vendor providing distributed data plane traffic forwarding. “In 2011, look for advancements to distribute control of Quality of Service, security, radio management, and distributed key caching capabilities into APs,” said vonNagy. ‘Watch for controllers to move into more of centralized management role and smart APs being operationally independent from controllers. Some vendors will begin removing controllers from their architectures completely, but will experience growing pains attempting to support both architectures simultaneously for a period of time,” he predicted.

Read “2010 in Wi-Fi: the Year in Review” at Wi-Fi Planet

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