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Enterprise wireless: trends and developments in 2017

What will be the main developments in wireless this year and what challenges will this bring to enterprises?

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With an increasing number of new mobile devices being used to access corporate infrastructure, enterprise wireless networks are under increasing pressure.

More than half of mobile data is already carried over Wi-Fi, according to Gartner, which is expected to grow from 52 million terabytes (TBs) in 2015 to 173 million TBs in 2018.

To help the enterprise get to grips with these challenges, there are a number of important trends that IT professionals need to be aware of.

The convergence of Wi-Fi, an historically networking operation owned by the enterprise, with security, managed as a separate division in the enterprise, is set to continue in 2017, according to Ryan Orsi, director of strategic alliances at WatchGuard.

He says enterprises have adopted mobility initiatives for their employees and in the case of distributed enterprises where offering guest or public Wi-Fi is common and required to be competitive.

“Mobility is no longer just about un-tethering people from their desks, but it’s about applying network access and wireless local area network (WLAN) security policies to this traffic as well,” he says.

To do this, networking and security teams inside enterprises will share information more frequently. Orsi says he sees wireless intrusion prevention systems (WIPS) as one of the key functions of an access point (AP), which has caused the strong convergence.

“Security teams need visibility into rogue APs, honeypot, evil twin activity that the Wi-Fi WIPS system is detecting and, likewise, the networking teams’ jobs are made easier if the automated prevention can be enabled by the WIPS sensors so that malicious or un-authorised traffic is suppressed,” he adds.

802.11ac – another wave

The emergence of wireless standard 802.11ac Wave 2 potentially has major benefit for users, according to Neil Anderson, practice manager of mobility and access solutions at World Wide Technology. Alongside this is Wi-Fi assurance.

He says 802.11ac wave 2 has a “a significant effect on performance and throughput of the wireless network that users will notice”. Features including multi-user MIMO (MU-MIMO) also allow more devices to simultaneously communicate with an AP.

“That alone can quadruple the performance and provide a much better experience for users,” says Anderson.

Orsi says enterprises are adopting 802.11ac Wave 2, which has been in many big-brand smartphones for some time, for better quality of experience. 

“MU-MIMO being one of the primary reasons so that an access point can communicate with more than one client device at a time for better airtime use,” he says.

He adds that access points using 802.11ac Wave 2 are starting to become the de-facto standard for enterprises, with the future upgrade path being 802.11ax, which promises reduced channel contention by adopting some of the lessons cellular carriers have learned over the years.

Anderson adds that Wi-Fi assurance could tackle a problematic area for WLAN around troubleshooting and reactiveness to user problems when they have difficulty connecting or don’t get a good experience.

“Tools that proactively measure the Wi-Fi coverage and experience in real-time, from the user’s point of view, are emerging,” he says.

He adds that both of these technologies are emerging because the workplace is moving to Wi-Fi as the primary network.

“Cubicle offices are disappearing, employees want to be untethered and work where they want, how they want. That has created a need for IT to relook at the Wi-Fi – is it ready for a completely mobile office space? Can it support wireless voice and video? When problems do occur, how do I know or troubleshoot?” says Anderson.

802.11ad – Bluetooth on steroids

Dirk Gates, founder of Xirrus, says 802.11ad is also an interesting emerging technology. It operates in the 60GHz industrial, scientific and medical radio (ISM) band instead of the 5GHz and 2.4GHz used by most Wi-Fi hardware today. 

It also has a theoretical max speed of 7Gbps, vs 3.2Gbps for 802.11ac Wave 2. However, as with all radio, the higher the Hertz, the lower the propagation.

“Think of it as Bluetooth on steroids,” says Gates. “It does for video/monitor connections, docking stations and mobile device connections what Bluetooth did for audio connections: provide a short-range (< 10m) wireless connection.”

Wireless IoT identity management and roaming

With the rise of the internet of things (IoT), we are likely to see new identity providers emerge, so systems will need to scale to the level of “an enterprise” – hence the emergence of enterprise wireless IoT identity management and roaming.

“But in the case of IoT, an enterprise for these identity providers will be a city, a manufacturer, a Wi-Fi service provider or a traditional telecoms operator,” says Ton Brand, senior director of marketing at the Wireless Broadband Alliance.

He says in the enterprise context, it is expected that a broker will play a key role in massive deployments and in the control of authentication information – such as extensible authentication protocol (EAP) information, or pre-shared keys – and that security is still a key aspect to consider in these on-boarding mechanisms. Hotspot 2.0 is a key enabler for these and the most effective industry process to achieve it, says Brand.

“As a result, authentication should be performed according to the seamless network discovery, service set identifier [SSID] independent, leveraging on next generation hotspot [NGH] key features, such as enterprises retaining control over network access while avoiding reconfiguration of the sensors – nearly zero-touch,” he says.

Brand adds that compared with conventional cellular roaming, which is built on an assumption of scaling to an order of hundreds of identity providers, there is an opportunity to enhance roaming systems to be able to support scaling of the order of tens of thousands of identity providers.

Location and device tracking

Another prevalent feature will be the capability of Wi-Fi to track and locate devices, according to Rufus Grig, CTO at managed communications service provider Maintel.

“Applications vary from locating expensive assets in hospitals to tracking footfall around shoe shops in shopping centres, which also enables powerful, vertical-specific analytics systems of the future,” he says.

He adds that enterprises will increasingly look to consume Wi-Fi as a service, where the core intelligence, management and security policy engine is delivered from the cloud as a fully managed service.

“This is ideally delivered as part of a wider security service that can also offload the guest and/or corporate internet access, with the associated web filtering and perimeter security taken care of for them,” he says.

Morten Illum, vice-president of Europe, the Middle East and Africa at Hewlett-Packard Enterprise (HPE) Aruba, says indoor location-based services are the leading cases for enterprise wireless, as well as remote monitoring of utilities, such as energy usage.

“This is helping enterprises build smart workplaces, where important assets are tracked by location and can communicate with other devices in their proximity,” he says.

Beyond 2017

Beyond the current horizon, the next major trend for World Wide Technology’s Anderson is software-defined networking (SDN). 

“I like to joke with my peers that wireless networking has been SDN for more than 10 years, because most modern Wi-Fi architectures already use a wireless controller with software defined intelligence to centrally control less intelligent APs at the edge,” he says.

Anderson adds that those architectures have lacked true network programmability through modern application programmng interfaces (APIs). “We are seeing the shift to that starting to occur, especially with original equipment manufacturers [OEMs] such as Mist that built their architecture 100% SDN from the ground up.”

As far as WatchGuard’s Orsi is concerned, beyond 2017, there will be more focus around Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and 900MHz (ISM band) IoT security. “Mirai showed us all how insecure these devices can be and if they have a Wi-Fi radio inside, enterprises are vulnerable to the Wi-Fi attack surface,” he says.

He adds that the deployment model of WLAN will move much more to the capacity design model. The two models are coverage – design for signal strength – and capacity, designing for the number of devices and type of traffic.

“This means enterprises will continue to deploy more and more APs per area and utilise radio resource management [RRM] functionality found in modern enterprise WLAN systems to reduce the power,” says Orsi. “It’s easier to hear your friend talk in a bar if everyone else around you is whispering (low power) versus shouting (high power).”

Anderson says wireless technology has entered a new wave of innovation with many cases of how wireless can be leveraged to create business models and business outcomes.

“Once a network of convenience for conference rooms and coffee shops, wireless is becoming the primary, mission-critical network for employees and their customers,” he says. “We are seeing the wireless network become a platform fuelling innovation and disruptive business models. The best is yet to come.”

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