Wi-Fi: Access Layer of the Future?

By scottm32768 posted Feb 25, 2015 08:16 AM


The Future is Now


Is Wi-Fi the access layer of the future? Of course it is and as Wi-Fi professionals we all know that outside the traditional enterprise, it’s the access layer of today. Most organizations have a BYOD program in place and some even mandate it. It is not uncommon for startups and other small businesses to run completely on Wi-Fi with the only wired connection being their uplink to the Internet and even that might be wireless. In the traditional enterprise, BYOD is primarily a response to employee pressure rather than an initiative to improve business.


Look at the typical home. The router provided by most (if not all) service providers will have Wi-Fi and it will be enabled by default. Comcast has an “xfinitywifi” SSID that is usable as a hotspot for any Comcast user that happens to come into their customer's range. Wi-Fi has become the expectation, so much so that we have seen some businesses (usually coffee shops) that have “no Wi-Fi” signs to indicate that they have chosen not have it as a selling point.


You would be hard pressed to find a new desktop PC without Wi-Fi integrated. Not that many people are buying desktops anymore. Remember the days when laptops came with an RJ–45 for Ethernet? (Or a built in 9-pin serial adapter and an RJ–11 for the modem? But I digress…) Don’t see those so much any more, since most people just use the wireless. Wired Ethernet as an access layer technology is on its way out. Leave some room for it next to the pile of modem cards and optical drives.


Traditional Enterprise Inertia


So why is the traditional enterprise still holding out? Probably the biggest reason is that they have inertia. They already have wires everywhere and “it’s always been done that way.” There is some value in asking “why change what works?” They have hard wired, Wake-on-LAN capable, centrally managed desktops connected to a gigabit switched network that can push system images and upgrades in a short period of time.


The enterprise desktop team already doesn’t like deploying a bunch of new machines during a maintenance window only to discovering that the network is on a 100Mb switch and it’s going to take an order of magnitude longer than expected to complete. Now toss that onto a wireless network… There will wailing and gnashing of teeth. Pushing a multi-gigabyte system image to a bunch of WLAN connected desktops. Probably without multicast. It might end well, but it won’t end soon.


There also doesn’t seem to be much support (or at least understanding) for two main technologies used in these deployments: PXE booting and Wake on WLAN. Adding insult to injury, making these things work in a secured wireless environment could be easier.


The Non-Technical Outside Force


All that said, architectural designs are getting more “trendy” and less wires is better. Simple and functional workspaces are becoming more popular and if a workspace can have only power run to it, that’s better. If there are public facing places in the building in question, it can become an aesthetic decision, rather than a technical one. Some building designers would get rid of the power cords if there was a way to do it.


Some also see wireless as a less expensive alternative to cabling the building. That might be true, depending on the scale of the building, but I suspect it's not when the total cost of that decision is weighed. It's probably not a good reason to go all wireless, but it may turn out to be a good decision in the long run.


Where The Wires End


We know the traditional enterprise will eventually catch up to the home and the startup. Eventually, the convenience of wireless will either outweigh technical objections or they will be resolved. Probably a combination of both. I see the speed of 802.11n as the biggest factor holding back wireless as the access method of choice. As 802.11ac is deployed the balance will begin to change. Wave 2 has the potential to improve speeds to the point that there’s few good reasons to continue to do things the old way.


Do you see important factors that I missed? Do you think I’m totally off base or thinking about this all wrong? Leave a comment and let me know!