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How not to waste your money on the second wave of 802.11ac wireless gear

Jon Gold | Jan. 28, 2015
The best way to avoid wasting your money on Wave 2 of 802.11ac access points is to not buy them right away, and the second-best is to not overreact to their presence on your network.

The best way to avoid wasting your money on Wave 2 of 802.11ac access points is to not buy them right away, and the second-best is to not overreact to their presence on your network.

Wave 2 APs have been on the market for about a year, dating back to last January's release of the Asus RT-AC87U, but the technology hasn't yet become commonplace among enterprise users.

The central difference between the two waves of 802.11ac technology is the use of multi-user MIMO essentially, a system of multiple antennae that allows Wave 2 hardware to use a given piece of spectrum for more than one client at the same time, increasing throughput.

This makes backhaul capacity the main technical sticking point for Wave 2 deployments, according to experts. The theoretical maximum data rate for a Wave 2 AP is 6.8Gbps, and even though real-world users are unlikely to come close to that, the capacity increase over previous-generation technology could still throttle 1Gbps connections.

Tearing out and replacing existing category 5 cable is, in many cases, a huge investment of time and money.

"If you've got open spaces and just a handful of APs, cabling may be a non-issue and you can do it for pennies for the foot," said Lee Badman (@wirednot), a network architect at Syracuse University. "Where you've got historic buildings and you've gotta add pathways and stuff like that, the cost of cabling can far exceed the cost of the access points themselves."

Enter Cisco, which is marketing a line of "multigig" switches designed to boost throughput on existing cables via new transmission standards. The NBASE-T Alliance was founded to promote those standards, as well as Cisco's value proposition.

Zeus Kerravala (@zkerravala), an analyst and Network World contributor, said that while Cisco may be slightly exaggerating the need for its multigig hardware, it's still a potentially valuable technology.

"Being the only [multigig] vendor, they're probably going to overhype it, right?" he said. "But I do think, if you're upgrading your wired network right now, it's something you should think about."

Syracuse's Badman warns against going out of your way to embrace multigig, however, citing the potentially major difference between Wave 2's theoretical maximum throughput and likely operational speeds.

"Some people in the industry are saying that even if we get to the full promise of 11ac, all you're ever going to need is a gig, and as long as you've got a decent cat 5, cat 6, you're never going to run faster than that," he said.

Indeed, it's far from clear that Wave 2 itself is going to become required technology anytime soon.

 

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