Some say technology is only successful when it's ubiquitous. By that measure Wi-Fi has succeeded: from hotels, to restaurants, to town centres or offices, we expect to seamlessly log on to high-speed broadband coverage.
And, as it's over a decade since Wi-Fi really caught on, now's a good time to ask what are the trends that will shape Wi-Fi and how can IT teams ensure that their Wi-Fi systems are ready for the future? In this article Patrick Groot Nuelend, Zebra Technologies' head of product development for wireless, gives his views on where next for Wi-Fi and how the technology is evolving to help IT teams increasingly pushed for time and budget.
What's going on in wireless?
One of the most interesting trends impacting Wi-Fi in the enterprise is the move to Bring Your Own Device (BYOD). Where once BYOD was treated with suspicion, now companies are embracing it: by 2017, half of enterprises will expect employees to supply their own device for work.
BYOD poses challenges for Wi-Fi. We have to ensure that networks are scalable to cope with more demand, are versatile to connect different devices and operating systems, and are highly secure to protect corporate data.
The question of scalability is not just about user numbers – we'll need to provide greater download speeds as well. Video is increasingly travelling over corporate networks, while Voice-over-IP is predicted by analysts to be entering a period of huge growth. Your users will not care if they access these apps over a wired or wireless connection – they'll just expect a great service. This lack of distinction between wired and wireless is important. Why? Because organisations are increasingly managing their data over wireless.
Initially this happened unnoticed: as people 'hot-desked' and the workforce became mobile, users started to connect more over wireless than wired networks. But such has been the success of Wi-Fi that many of our customers now have a 'wireless by default, wired by exception' policy. This means that Wi-Fi is the main network for most employees.
Wired networks will still be used but for certain applications only. Examples include server and data centre connectivity, and kiosks such as point of sales systems in retail stores.
So what does all this mean? The key thing to my mind is your wireless system needs to cope with growing demand for speed and capacity. And it must deliver the same performance – in terms of reliability and security – as a wired network. There's another aspect to this too. Many of the people I speak to in IT face the twin pressure of less time and less budget. So, to help, wireless must be easier (and cost-effective) to deploy, monitor and run.
With this in mind, below are five steps you can take to build the Wi-Fi networks that will deliver the performance your users demand.
Wi-Fi for the future
- Move to 802.11ac: There was a six-year gap between 802.11n networks and today's 802.11ac. This is an eternity in technology, and the biggest benefit of 'ac' is speed, with smart Multiple-in, Multiple-Out (MiMO) antennas enabling maximum download speeds of 1.3 GHz – three times that of 802.11n. Your users will see a clear improvement in performance – performance improved by greater capacity. Indeed, it's predicted that, by 2018, 802.11ac Access Points will replace all legacy 802.11n systems.
- Deploy self-propagating systems: Setting up a wireless network is time-consuming – involving an RF survey, installation of Access Points, interference analysis and testing. So look for automated systems that provide smart installation features. Smart systems will automate surveys and interference analysis while their Access Points will self-propagate. The system will see an Access Point when it's turned on and, noting its location, will automatically send the correct settings to it – including broadcast range, channels and security settings. We call these systems 'zero touch' and they can save you a lot of headaches.
- Optimise security: The options exist to fortify your network. At the primary level the network can be secured using password authentication. You can also install digital certificates – e.g. your employees' own devices – that are automatically authenticated by Access Points and cleared, or denied, network access. You can also go a step further, using digital fingerprinting technology. This uses the Access Point to check what the device is, what operating system it has and what access is being requested to validate or refuse service. In addition, you can create virtual private networks – for instance for your HR team – that further ring-fence sensitive data and apps to approved users only.
- Automate management: Your network should be able to self-manage – with self-aware Access Points taking actions to remedy issues such as interference, an overloading of an Access Point or its failure. The network can automate changes to overcome these issues – swapping between frequency channels, increasing power, and rebalancing loads across Access Points. You can define the rules within which the network can self-manage so heading off problems before users see any issues and greatly reducing the admin burden on your team.
- See everything everywhere: You should be able to see your complete wireless network, or networks, from one admin tool for your IT team to review and make changes where necessary. The management tool will also enable you to set rules under which the network can make changes to its settings and define how it should communicate with your IT teams – alerts, for example, can come via SMS, email or SNMP messages.
Wi-Fi becomes a utility
In the eyes of users, Wi-Fi has become a utility – one we just expect to work. In the past, a lot has gone on behind the scenes to ensure that users receive this performance. But with management tools making installing, monitoring and managing networks much easier, Wi-Fi is about to become a true utility – requiring much reduced time from IT. Add in the faster speeds and easier installation of Access Points (to meet growing capacity demands) offered by 802.11ac, and Wi-Fi is ready to provide the core network foundation for your business for the foreseeable future.
 'Bring Your Own Device: The Facts and the Future', Gartner Group
About the author
Patrick Groot Nuelend is Head of Wireless Product Management for Zebra Technologies' Enterprise Networking & Communications (ENC) division for Europe, Middle East and Africa. He is responsible for regional Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) of Zebra 's Wireless Local Area Network, Security, Management and Enterprise Communications portfolio. In his position Patrick works with customers from a diverse spectrum of industries in order to fulfil their Wireless Solutions requirements
Starting his career as a software engineer at the National Institute for Energy Research (ENC) in The Netherlands, Patrick is a combination of engineer and business developer. With over 20 years' experience in the IT industry and mobile enterprise sector, Patrick has worked closely with end users to understand their mobility requirements.
Prior to his current role, Patrick worked in various (pre-) sales and technical positions in Motorola and Symbol Technologies in technology areas such as Enterprise Mobile Computing, Data Capture Solutions and RFID. Patrick holds a Bachelor Degree in Computer Technology from University of Hertfordshire and Hogeschool Gelderland.