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The Future of Wireless: Times are Changing Before Our Eyes

We live in amazing times, ask anyone who ever had to look up a phone number in a phone book. In the past this was the only way you could find the number to your favorite restaurant if you wanted to make a reservation. Today, all we need to do is reach into our pocket or purse and grab our mobile device, open an application and in a few seconds (not minutes) we have the phone number. Not only that, but we can see the menu and make a reservation right from the device. Over time we have become dependent on carrying the world (both personal and professional) in our pocket. With mobility, we are always on, always connected: nothing—whether it’s your team’s latest score or that email from a vendor you need to send to your boss—is more than a quick search away.

What once seemed unfathomable, this way of always being connected is now commonplace. However, as the application developers sit and think of the next killer app, the IT team has to make sure the network can not only support this new app, but also assure the performance meets the higher and higher demands of new apps. This requires the network to be more application-aware. And the reality is that more applications that require higher network performance are coming at a faster rate. Add to it new devices that use these applications are becoming accessible to everyone. On top of that, the people that use these applications and devices are becoming more demanding in terms of reliability and experience. So what is an IT person to do?

“We were ahead of the times,” says Joseph Tufano, VP and CIO of St. John’s University. “But times have changed. You see it everywhere: for example, if you go to a basketball game on campus, and there’s a timeout, everybody is using their mobile devices.”

IT is always working to increase the wireless performance of the network. However, as more bandwidth becomes available, users increase their usage and consume that bandwidth. There are many considerations when designing a network to support the growing numbers of users, devices and applications coming online. It is becoming abundantly clear that applications are driving significant change in the network infrastructure, from mobile access through the wired network, and, if the bandwidth isn’t available to support those applications, the blame will fall on the network (meaning everyone will look to IT to fix the problem).

If you Build It, They Will Connect

In the past, IT would build networks designed to allow for overprovisioning. IT was basically designing networks with more bandwidth and performance then they estimated the end users needed at that time with the expectation that they would grow. On paper this made a lot of sense, but the reality was that as more bandwidth and network resources became available, new applications, like video conferencing, were designed to utilize those resources.   Basically, the more that was available, the more end users demanded. IT searched for higher and higher performance. This resulted in new standards being created and being released at a faster rate than before.

Let’s look at wireless standards, for example. The current Wave 1 portion of the 802.11ac standard introduced gigabit wireless by delivering a maximum data rate of 1.3Gbps in 2012. Compare this with the maximum data rate of 11Mbps delivered by 802.11b in 1999. By 2015/2016 the second wave of the 802.11ac standard will be capable of delivering a maximum datarate of 6.9 Gbps or more than 627 times the data rate of 802.11b (which, by the way, you should prioritize removing from your networks to optimize performance). Figure1 shows the progression of 802.11wireless standard and their maximum data rates for access points over time. Figure 1: graph3 As you can see the demand for more and more bandwidth and performance has created a situation where new standards are addressing this need for bandwidth by taking the best of previous standards  and improving on it with more performance. As higher rates of bandwidth are introduced they are very quickly consumed.  Moving to 802.11ac is a very strong first step in delivering a higher end user experience, but will the network you design today stand up to the demand placed on your network in a year or two?

Armand Stansel, Director of IT Infrastructure Services at Methodist Hospital in Houston, TX said, “A high-performing Wi-Fi network inspires both confidence in wireless healthcare tools and broader, more intensive use of those tools. And that, in turn, presents us with new challenges. 802.11ac will enable us to meet those challenges.” (Learn more about the gigabit Wi-Fi deployment at Methodist Hospital here)

This statement shows as new technology is deployed to support applications as the use and dependence on those applications grows. Many IT organizations are faced with the reality that keeping up with growing demand could consume vast resources and drive extremely high cost if the network refresh cycle is shortened. This does raise the question, “Is merely adding performance enough? Or do we need to rethink how we support these wireless devices?”

This blog series will examine how IT can take advantage of technology that works with 802.11ac to improve how they support the mobile environment and the applications of today and tomorrow.

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