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Next generation WLANs: beyond intelligent and thin

Wireless LAN (WLAN) has evolved from a niche technology to the primary mode of network access. Today’s enterprises deploy WLANs as a standard business tool to drive productivity and enhance collaboration.

With the arrival of the 802.11n standard, a fundamental change is in place, delivering a dramatic boost in capacity and speed that has major implications for how organizations will use wireless networks over the next five years. Organizations can expand the range of applications mobilised over wireless networks, including both existing and ground-breaking high-bandwidth applications, helping to streamline business processes and foster corporate competitive advantage. “Dot-11-en” (.11n) can make a wireless network operate at speeds over 300 megabits per second, which is nearly three times faster than most Ethernet networks and up to eight times faster than current wireless networks. It also extends the reach of a wireless network, offering greater range than today's Wi-Fi gear. These advances allow the wireless LAN to function not just as an adjunct to the wired network, but as a full-fledged extension of the core network, with the added advantage of complete and pervasive mobility for all business applications.

Whether or not an organization wishes to deploy 802.11n in the near term, architecture must be a major consideration when making a WLAN investment decision today. While network architecture is intended to be relevant for several years, a significant environmental change will cause an evolution. As IT directors consider .11n, many wonder if the increased bandwidth of access points will strain their backbone network and how they should deliver a fair balance of reliability, network management and cost. The answer is simple: it all depends on the level of intelligence in the wireless LAN architecture.

Most of today’s wireless LAN architectures use thin access points (APs) and a centralised wireless LAN controller. All traffic is tunneled through the APs, core network and controller in order to be processed and forwarded. Then it gets switched back into the same network for transmission to its ultimate destination. While this centralises the network configuration and management, it also results in a number of IT headaches. The controller creates a bottleneck that limits WLAN performance; the extra network hops degrade quality of service; the tunneling of traffic adds unnecessary load to the LAN backbone; the controller introduces a single point of failure in the network. The impending industry-wide migration to .11n only makes the pain points of centralised architectures worse, as well as the IT budgets as it requires a forklift upgrade or band-aid approach. These solutions do not solve any of the performance, network load and reliability issues of centralised architectures.

Fortunately, the next generation of an optimised WLAN (ready for .11n) architecture has now arrived. It distributes data processing intelligence by using both smart controllers and smart APs. This architecture can switch traffic at the edge of the wired network, enabling it to go directly to its destination. It is up to 98 percent more efficient than centralized WLAN switches and provides a straightforward and cost-effective migration path to 802.11n. Since traffic can be integrated into the wired network at the AP, controller scalability is not tied to the amount of wireless traffic, and therefore will not be impacted by a deluge of 802.11n traffic. This architecture is ‘true enterprise mobility,’ providing optimal application delivery, low impact on the wired core and no single point of failure or performance bottleneck.

While it may sound ideal, IT directors still face the potential problem of making a big investment in something their company is not quite ready for. Unlike other vendors’ centralised architectures, HP ProCurve offers a solution of fully protected equipment. In November, a new Optimised WLAN Architecture has been introduced that makes it easy for customer to migrate forward to .11n. by simply adding a .11n AP to their network. With the Optimised Architecture, no changes are necessary to the controller or management system in order to take advantage of the new standard. This means there is no need for forklift upgrades or band-aids and no stranded investments.

Pushing intelligence out to the network edge is a well-traveled path previously taken by wired networks, which moved from centralized to distributed intelligent infrastructures. ProCurve is the only vendor of wired and wireless networking solutions based on intelligent edge architecture. It is this intelligence that gives ProCurve customers almost limitless performance and scalability. Looking into the future, IDC expects HP and competitors to continue driving the cost of operating WLANs down while improving performance and reliability .

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