802.11ac Wi-Fi is slowly making headway in the enterprise, but the specification's speed and performance improvements over 802.11n, as well as organizations' adoption of BYOD, create traffic capture and analysis challenges. Namely, 802.11ac and BYOD both encourage a dramatic increase in traffic over enterprise wireless networks. Network and application performance analysis tools vendor WildPackets is stepping up to the plate with today's release of Omni Distributed Analysis Platform 7.9.5.
Factors driving 802.11ac adoption
Though still in Wave 1, the 802.11ac standard already promises data speeds of up to 7 Gbps in the 5GHz spectrum, as well as lower latency and improvements to coverage and performance overall. These features make 802.11ac particularly well-suited for modern enterprise applications like VoIP and video conferencing. The enterprise is growing more and more comfortable with real-time collaboration overall, which 802.11ac helps enable.
802.11ac also offers performance benefits for BYOD organizations. With BYOD often comes a significant increase in the load on the network thanks to a proliferation of devices onsite. It's not uncommon, for example, for workers to stream music or videos or join video conferences on their tablets while simultaneously working from laptops also connected to the WLAN. Employees switching their smartphones over to the wireless network to save on their mobile data plans further increase the load. 802.11ac's greater capacity and parallel transmission capabilities can preserve application performance in the face of growing demand. Luckily for BYOD enterprises, the newer generations of consumer devices often come 802.11ac-ready.
Finally, though 802.11n still dominates device sales, 802.11ac is gaining popularity, according to ABI Research. Of particular importance is 802.11ac's backwards compatibility with earlier Wi-Fi specifications. Enterprises looking to begin the transition aren't facing a forklift upgrade, a factor which will likely play into purchasing decisions for some time to come.
But while 802.11ac offers a multitude of benefits to the enterprise, it does create some challenges when it comes to wireless network management and troubleshooting.
802.11ac network management challenges, and how WildPackets addresses them
The 802.11a/b/g/n standards have been around for long enough to develop a solid ecosystem of network management and traffic analysis tools. Not so with 802.11ac. Wi-Fi traffic is typically captured locally, using either laptops equipped with special software and USB adapters, or dedicated devices like the Fluke Networks OptiView XG Network Analysis Tablet that Enterprise Networking Planet reviewed earlier this year. But without 802.11ac support—which even the OptiView XG currently lacks—these tools may prove inadequate for the WLANs of the near future, according to WildPackets.
"The antennas really don't keep up with 802.11ac data rates anymore, and the USB adapters don't keep up anymore," Jay Botelho, WildPackets director of product management, told me. Additionally, the need for a network engineer or administrator at the point of the network problem can be an issue.
"In a lot of cases, the networks are so dispersed now and have such small network engineering staffs that they're usually not near the problem," Botelho said.
Version 7.9.5 of the WildPackets Omni Distributed Analysis Platform aims to address these problems. The platform provides remote 802.11ac data capture and analysis by using commercial enterprise access points (APs) themselves as data capture devices rather than relying on external means. The platform already works with Cisco and Aruba 802.11ac APs, among others.
Using APs as sensors isn't a new concept for WildPackets, but "we've had to make a lot more changes, and we have worked very closely with Cisco and Aruba so far to make this work," Botelho said. The approach provides full 802.11ac traffic capture and enables engineers and admins to troubleshoot their WLANs without having to be onsite, a boon for distributed enterprises with remote and branch offices to support.
Getting ahead of the enterprise 802.11ac network management market
The 802.11ac standard is still relatively new, with only a small footprint in the enterprise, creating an opportunity for WildPackets. The company is claiming first-to-market bragging rights for today's release of Omni Distributed Analysis Platform 7.9.5, which is "the industry's first Wi-Fi analysis solution for gigabit wireless local area networks" and "the only commercial solution available for managing and troubleshooting new enterprise 802.11ac networks," according to a WildPackets statement.
"The manufacturers that are out there selling to the enterprises—Cisco, Aruba, Meru—they've really just come to market with their first ac products. And what we're finding as a company is that people are having real difficulty being able to monitor those new networks because they're so much faster than they were before. We've been trying to get ahead of the market, and we think we will be," Botelho said.
Jude Chao is managing editor of Enterprise Networking Planet. Follow her on Twitter @judechao.