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The Seven Years of Creating “N”

When was the last time it took you seven years to complete a project? I’d venture a guess that for most of us, a seven year time horizon to do anything seems like a pretty long time. Yet, in just shy of a month the IEEE will close the final chapter on a standards ratification process that will have lasted almost exactly seven years. The IEEE will ratify the 802.11n standard for high-speed wireless, removing the final hurdle for adoption by even the most conservative of enterprise. Of course, many enterprises have already developed quite a kinship with the standard that delivers wireless performance on par with wired networks. Still, the ratification of the standard paves the way for broad scale adoption and perhaps, just as importantly, allows the standards body and participating vendors to move on to the next phases of innovation.Before we shift our focus forward to the next big thing, let’s spend a little time remembering the path that brought us to this point. I thought it would be interesting to take a look at a timeline of the major milestones hit along the way. • September 11, 2002 -- The discussions around a high-speed wireless standard were first kicked off with the meeting of the High-Throughput Study Group. The goal was to determine the feasibility of delivering a wireless standard that would surpass the performance of the existing 802.11a and 802.11g standards. • September 11, 2003 -- A year later, the study group was formalized into the actual 802.11n Task Group within the IEEE. • July 2005 -- After almost two years as an actual Task Group, the team agreed upon its first draft of the standard. Yet, most felt that more work needed to be done to improve the quality of the draft. • February 2007 -- Finally, in early 2007, the Task Group arrived at a very respectable version 2.0 of the draft standard. At this time, the Task Group voted and the Draft 2.0 achieved 83.4% approval. It was widely accepted that the core features were solidly in place with this draft. Having more than 75% of the voters voting in its favor, Draft 2.0 became the first draft of 802.11n to achieve sufficient consensus in the 802.11 Working Group, and was considered an “approved” internal draft.• First quarter 2007 -- In parallel to the IEEE standards process, a number of consumer-grade 802.11n access points and clients started to appear on the market. Without a completed standard, these early 11n-based products offered little promise of compatibility and raised concerns about a market stall based on consumer confusion over interoperability and investment protection. • February 2007 -- June 2009 -- Over the next two years, the IEEE-run Sponsor Ballot, which consists of a variety of industry experts, continued to review and refine the draft. At each update cycle, progressively smaller aspects of the draft were addressed. This process continued until draft 11.0.• June 2007 -- As the IEEE continued to iterate on the finalization of the standard, the market was not waiting. With the view that the 802.11n Draft 2.0 version of the standard was relatively stable, the Wi-Fi Alliance decided to start certification. Cisco worked extensively with the Wi-Fi Alliance in the initial certification testbed and the Aironet 1250 Series access point was the only enterprise-class access point to be part of the original certification testbed. Testbed participation was especially important at the time, given the uncertainty around the final outcome of the standard.• September 2007 -- Cisco released the first enterprise-class Wi-Fi certified access point with the Aironet 1250 Series. The product quickly became the fastest selling access point in Cisco’s history. Testing confirmed that 802.11n was delivering on its promise. Organizations like Duke University and Southeast Alabama Medical Center deployed the product with onsite testing showing single radio performance in excess of 160 Mbps -- over a 7x improvement from the existing 802.11a/g technology.• January 2009 -- Expanding on its existing success with the Aironet 1250 Series, Cisco introduced the Aironet 1140 Series -- a Wi-Fi certified 802.11n Draft 2.0 platform designed for the general office environment. The 1140 Series rapidly surpassed the 1250 Series as the fastest selling access point, underscoring the demand for high performance wireless systems to support the growth in mobile applications and devices. At the same time, Cisco introduced ClientLink technology to ensure that the co-existence of 802.11a/g and 802.11n devices would be as seamless as possible. Exclusive to Cisco, ClientLink uses beamforming technology to improve the performance of existing 802.11a/g devices while freeing up greater spectrum for new 802.11n devices. • September 11, 2009 -- Exactly seven years since the initial meeting of the High-Throughput Study Group, the IEEE is expected to ratify the 802.11n standard. Of course, the market hasn’t waited for the IEEE and the Wi-Fi Alliance has certified over 600 products as 802.11n Draft 2.0 compliant since June 2007. Still, with the final standard set for ratification by the IEEE Standards Board in September, followed by publication in November 2009, enterprises can now move to take advantage of the benefits of 802.11n in full confidence.While the road has been a fairly long one, the outcome has certainly been worth the wait. 802.11n gives enterprises the performance foundation required to support both existing enterprise applications typically run over the wired network and new mobile applications and devices that are driving the broader trend towards the mobilization of business. As media-rich applications like video become the norm, 802.11n will provide the throughput and reliability to allow seamless and ubiquitous application delivery to any static or mobile endpoint.In a future blog, we’ll examine the implications of the ratified standard and take a look at what organizations should do to realize the full potential of 802.11n.

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