Last week in a transaction that received little notice Cisco Systems bought Meraki Inc., a six-year-old wireless company, for $1.2 billion. This for a company that had less than $100 million in annual sales. Did Cisco overpay? No, they made a critical acquisition that is going to have a major impact on how we work and live.
To understand the deal’s impact you have to know a little history of the wireless industry. For more than one hundred years the federal government has been selling off chunks of the radio frequency spectrum. The first customers were, of course, radio stations. But, eventually, pieces of the spectrum were sold to television stations, cell phone companies, satellite providers and more. But there was an exception. It was determined, years ago, that the frequencies at 2.4GHz and 5GHz were useless, having no commercial application. So the government left them unlicensed. Anyone could broadcast at these frequencies, and the thought was that they would be used exclusively by amateur radio enthusiasts. But a funny thing happened. Bright people started thinking up commercial applications. One company, Telesystems SLW Inc., rapidly became the industry leader. This Canadian developer and supplier of wireless data communications products and local access networks (LANs) was the first company in the industry to receive the approval of both the U. S. Federal Communications Commission and Canada's Department of Communication for its spread spectrum radios. Telesystems was acquired in 1992 by Telxon, an Akron based supplier of hand-held barcode readers. Telxon renamed the company Aeronet and, in 1999, spun it off as a public company. Six weeks later, Cisco, wanting to make a move into the wireless industry, bought Aeronet. The age of broad acceptance for wireless networks had begun.
The products Aeronet brought to market were autonomous access points. Each AP was controlled individually. If you wanted to change channels or power settings, you consoled into the AP to do it. And in the early days that worked fine. But by 2005, autonomous wireless networks were becoming a victim of their own success. There were so many APs out there that management was becoming a nightmare. Enterprise organizations, such as hospitals, couldn’t keep up with maintaining the WLAN, and a new breed of wireless companies sprang up. These companies pulled the intelligence from the APs and centralized it back on a controller. Now WLAN administrators could manage an entire network from a centralized point. Cisco responded to the changing market by acquiring Airespace, a leader in controller-based wireless networks. To this architecture Cisco has added many innovations. ClientLink, Clean Air, Unified Access and ISE are just a few of the enhancements coming out of their labs.
But, in the background, change was coming again to wireless. While controller-based architecture allowed centralization, it also added complexity. Now, besides understanding RF you also had to be a networking expert to maintain your systems. Organizations found themselves dedicating more and more resources to an ever-expanding WLAN. In many ways we have returned to our old problems. Innovation in wireless has brought increased proliferation, and expanding wireless networks have brought complexity. In 2006, three doctoral candidates from MIT had a different idea. What if complexity could be removed from the wireless network? Thus, before anyone was saying cloud they created a cloud solution for wireless. The idea was simple. Their company, Meraki, would do all of the management. There’d be no need for controllers. Customers could just install thin APs -- access points with no built-in intelligence -- and Meraki would take it from there. The idea resonated with customers and Meraki became an overnight success. Now they’re part of Cisco, a company with the ability to scale the Meraki approach out over hundreds of thousands of APs. This is not to say that controller-based WLANs are going away anytime soon. They will be part of our infrastructure for the next several years. But soon, I think, you will see an increasing proliferation of cloud-based WLANs, and by 2015 they will become the norm.
What does it all mean to you? I can tell you what it means to me. I’m a traveler. I’ve been fortunate enough to have had experiences like spending days in the Amazon rainforest, spotting condors in the Andes, visiting a Berber camp in the lost city of Petra, hunting tigers from the back of an elephant in the jungles of Nepal and exploring tombs in the Valley of the Kings. But a few years ago I achieved a life goal of reaching the Base Camp of Mt. Everest. It was an arduous trip. Beijing to Xian to Chengdu to Lhasa and then two days in the back of a Land Cruiser getting to the base camp. It was worth it. Waking up in the morning to a cloud free view of the most magnificent mountain in the world is an experience I’ll never forget. The downside was that I wasn’t able to share it with my family. We were off the grid. In fact I was out of touch with them for a week.
The year after I made it to the base camp, Cisco installed a wireless network there. If I went back now, I’d be able to Facetime with my family on an iPad. They could see what I was seeing. But I still couldn’t share the journey with them. I couldn’t show them the ancient Buddhist monastery at Shigatse or the Potala Palace in Lhasa. I couldn’t share adventures like being detained by Chinese authorities on suspicion of something or other or almost sliding off a 3000 foot cliff in the Himalayas because our driver wanted to save gas by not using 4-wheel drive. OK, maybe some things are best left unshared but you get the point.
Over the next couple of years that’s going to change. You are accustomed to having a wireless client device in your laptop, tablet and phone. Now you’re going to start seeing these devices and many others, including cars, becoming access points that can connect, via satellite, from anywhere in the world. There will be no more remote places. From the jungles of Borneo to the Arctic Sea the Internet will always be on.
About a year ago, MCPc introduced a concept called the anyplace workspace®. It isn’t about a device or protocol –- it’s about how we live and work. We saw then the rise of cloud architectures for both wired and wireless networks. There are many more changes coming that we can’t foresee, but the anyplace workspace will be ready for them because it focuses on the end result of a simplified, connected, freer work life rather than specific solutions. Your anyplace workspace may be a ski mountain in Colorado or a beach in Mexico. As for me, I’ve got my eye on a trip to Patagonia next year. Maybe we can Facetime while I’m there.
Bill Cannon is a long-time member of the Institute of Electrical & Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and a sponsoring member of the 802.11 Standards Committee. He participated in IEEE’s deliberations of the formal definition of both cloud computing and its studies on the relationships between cloud computing and virtualization. He currently serves as a Partner Manager for Cisco and Dell. Connect with Bill on LinkedIn.
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When the iPad first came out two years ago, 300,000 were sold in the first three days. When the iPad 3 came out earlier in the year, over 3,000,000 were sold in the first three days. If that trend continues, we should expect that when the iPad 6 comes out it will be purchased by 100% of the world’s population during the first three days of release. Ok, that’s a long shot, but the point is a lot of iPads are being sold. And a lot of iPhones. And a lot of Androids. And the laptop market is still strong. What is the common theme here? They are all Wi-Fi devices and they all want a piece of your wireless network.
The MCPc anyplace workspace is a concept that says whatever your device, wherever you are, we’re going to make sure you have accessibility to your data. For an increasing number of enterprises, supporting mobile access has become synonymous with supporting the iPad. It's a refrain I am hearing again and again when I talk to our customers:
Can my WLAN support the iPad and other mobile devices?
To begin to determine if you are ready to support this influx of wireless clients, we need to look at the nature of the wireless devices requiring connectivity. Most wireless end clients manufactured in the last 24 months, including iPads, are shipped with an internal 802.11n radio. 802.11n works in both the 2.4 and the 5 GHz range. Remember that even smartphones will, if able, attach to your wireless network and run their data across it rather than the cellular carrier’s 3G or 4G networks. So what does that mean? That means that you are likely being forced to provide IP addresses to a whole lot of devices that were grabbing addresses from the cellular network just a couple years ago.
Most 802.11n clients including iPads and newer laptops will first try to connect in the 5 GHz range. The 5GHz spectrum tends to have less interference than 2.4 GHz because many devices, including cordless phones, microwave ovens and even Bluetooth devices, operate in 2.4GHz frequency.
Since there are very few standards surrounding the implementation of Wi-Fi radios in mobile devices, a common expectation is that the wireless experience on an iPad will be similar to that of a laptop. Unfortunately the power of the wireless radio in the iPad and laptops differ dramatically. Laptops typically have a transmit power of 30 mW to 50 mW (15 dBm to 17 dBm). iPads have an average transmit power of 10 milliwatts (mW, 10 decibels per mW [dBm]). Given the difference in transmit power, it is unrealistic to expect iPads and laptops to consistently connect to your WLAN at similar levels. Either the range or the performance expectations of the iPad are going to have to change.
iPads have roughly 60% of the transmit power of most newer laptops set at equal distance from an access point. A recent Gartner report noted that “if the IT organization is asked to provide the same performance as a typical laptop throughout the coverage area at 5GHz, the IT organization will need 300% more access points. Remember that there is a 6 dB difference between the transmit power of the iPad, which has an average transmit power of 10 dB, and the laptop, which has an average transmit power of 15 dB to 17 dB. Radio frequency (RF) basics tell us that the distance required to maintain the same throughput doubles for each 3 dB, but the coverage required grows exponentially, which will require 300% more access points.” In an office environment where typical WLAN designs called for designs of about 3000 sq. ft. for each cell, Gartner is suggesting that each cell will cover only 750 sq. ft. -- an area about 27’ by 27’. In a hospital where cell sizes often top out at 2000 sq. ft., that would translate to 500 sq. ft. per cell.
The 802.11ac Factor
When designing WLANs we now also need to be cognizant of the upcoming 802.11ac standard that is pending ratification. This standard is designed to operate only in the 5GHz range and to provide throughput upwards of 1 gigabit. Manufacturers like Cisco are already building access points with available draft 802.11ac modules. Cisco’s latest 802.11n access point, the 3600, features both a 4x4 MIMO antenna configuration as well as an expansion slot which will allow for the addition of an 802.11ac module. Devices like the 3600 allow for customers to embrace the 802.11n standard while also providing investment protection once the 802.11ac standard is ratified.
Knowing that iPads have always adhered to the latest IEEE wireless standards, it’s reasonable to assume that all iPads released after the formal ratification of 802.11ac will embrace this new standard. In the next generation iPad design it’s logical to assume that Apple will boost their radios to a higher transmit power to take advantage of the increased throughput.
Mobile Devices are Here to Stay and Will Grow in Numbers
While attending Cisco Live earlier this month I heard the resounding message from Cisco and third party software developers alike: The age of the wireless revolution is here!
By 2015 wireless devices are expected to outnumber wired by a staggering 5 to1! While many organizations have been planning for this migration for some time, in most cases there is still an awful lot of planning left to do. The smaller 802.11ac cell sizes will require an engineering redesign of legacy data/voice 802.11a/g environments. For organizations that want to bring the anyplace worskpace to its employees, this redesign will be critical to the successful deployment and maintenance of a WLAN capable of supporting it.
Kevin Cannon is an MCPc Solution Architect with a focus on Cisco advanced technologies, and has over 8 years of experience in developing and deploying WiFi, VoIP, video and RTLS solutions for mid-sized and enterprise-level organizations. Connect with Kevin on LinkedIn.
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Few things are more certain in the field of technology than the need for speed. Gigabyte Ethernet, 10 GB, 40 GB and 4G LTE are each performance indicators based on the speed of throughput. The WiFi industry is no exception.
As a sponsoring member of the IEEE 802.11 Standards Committee, I have the opportunity to review many proposed upgrades to wireless networks. Some are concerned with security, quality of service (QOS) management or TV whitespace, but the ones that inevitably get publicity concentrate on increased wireless local area network (WLAN) speed.
IEEE 802.11 is the set of standards for implementing WLAN computer communication. This post examines milestones in WLAN standards for increasing speed, and some of the most recently proposed updates to those standards.
IEE 802.11 History: Timeline to Track Standards
IEEE 802.11 technology was introduced in 1985 through a Federal Communications Commission ruling. It was released in 1997 with a frequency of 2.4 GHz. From there, multiple amendments to the standard have been made. Some of the most notable include:
September 1999: IEEE 802.11a — Uses the 5 GHz and in some cases 3.7 frequency band; signals have a smaller effective range and are therefore more affected by attenuation.
September 1999: IEEE 802.11b — Radio frequency (RF) in the 2.4 GHz frequency spectrum; theoretical data transfer speeds of 11 megabits per second (Mbit/s). (Note, I say theoretical because when you allow for forward error correction codes, the real speed was about 6 Mbit/s.)
June 2003: IEEE 802.11g — Published speed of 54 Mbit/s and actual throughput of about 22 Mbit/s; both 802.11b and 802.11g operate in the 2.4 GHz range, competing with other devices operating in the same range (such as cordless phones, baby monitors, wireless cameras and microwave ovens).
October 2009: IEEE 802.11n — Operates at both 2.4 and 5 GHz; doubled the channel width from 20 MHz to 40 MHz; can run as high as 600 Mbit/s (but, in real world scenarios, 200 - 300 Mbit/s is likely the highest rate achievable); its major innovation is the addition of Multiple Input Multiple Output (MIMO) antennas.
New IEEE Standards Promote Speed, at the Cost of Range
Now, two new standards look poised to replace 802.11n — IEEE 802.11ac and IEEE 802.11ad.
A logical progression, IEEE 801.11ac uses the 5 GHz range and is expected to reach speeds of 1 Gbit/s. That’s between three and four times faster than our current standard! The draft standard is due this year and it’s anticipated that IEEE 802.11ac should start rolling out in late 2012. The market research firm In-Stat predicts that, in 2015, one billion devices with the IEEE 802.11ac standard will be sold. However, another standard in development that could disrupt these plans.
Known formally as IEEE 802.11ad and generally as WiGig, this standard promises speeds of 7 Gbit/s — more than ten times faster than the current standard!
At first glance, it looks like a no-brainer: we’d all rather have 7 Gbit/s than 1 Gbit/s. The catch, however, is that IEEE 802.11ad doesn’t run in the 5 GHz or 2.4 GHz ranges. It moves way up the spectrum to the 60 GHz range. With a higher signal and shorter range, it becomes more sensitive to attenuation — meaning walls, closed doors or any barriers will have more impact than they would at 5 GHz and 2.4 GHz.
Cells at 60 GHz will be smaller and more prone to disruption. So an IEEE 802.11ad network could either take a whole lot of access points or resemble a chain of high-performance islands with big dead spots around them. While it’s impossible to predict exact cell size, in linear terms, the beam at 60 GHz will travel less than 10 meters — opposed to 30 to 50 meters we see in 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz.
WiGig in Action
Even though WiGig will require wireless network redesign and result in kludgy cells, it will be worth it. Take the following example for home users:
HDTV requires 3 Gbit/s. IEEE 802.11n running at 300 Mbit/s isn’t fast enough; neither is IEEE 802.11ac at 1 Gbit/s. IEEE 802.11ad at 7 Gbit/s will eliminate streaming, choppy video, and all that has prevented us from getting video directly from the Internet. So don’t rush to buy a 3D TV just yet. It will likely be obsolete next year when IEEE 802.11ad-enabled sets begin to hit shelves.
What to Do in the Meantime?
The good news: manufacturers don’t have to choose between a WiFi network that provides adequate coverage areas and one that provides the speed you need. Next year, we’re likely to see tri-band network devices that will operate in 2.4, 5 and 60 GHz.
You could cover all areas with 60 GHz IEEE 802.11ad, but that will be very expensive. More likely, you’ll design room-sized areas where high bandwidth is needed, including ad standard with IEEE 801.11ac, suggesting that legacy devices using 2.4 GHz will gradually fade away and abandon that frequency to microwave ovens. But don’t count on it. Historically, every time there’s been bandwidth available, someone’s come up with a creative use for it.
With standards held up in IEEE task groups, the promises of 802.11ac and 802.11ad may take some time to come to market. Would your company benefit from increased speed at the cost of range? What are your thoughts?
Bill Cannon is Vice President of Business Development at MCPc, and an IT industry veteran with expertise in networking and telecommunications technology. Connect with Bill on LinkedIn.
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