Billy Connolly, the Scottish comedian, laughing at his father for losing his glasses again jokingly told him about an article he had read for a prescription car windscreen. His father thought this would be the greatest thing since sliced bread and wanted one immediately. Now, imagine the vision as this vehicle approaches and a man with a head the size of a small asteroid is looking at you. Or the confusion of a new owner as he drove off into a lamppost!! My point is we have to careful when looking at things we are told will change our lives for the better. We have all heard the buzz around 5G so let’s have a look and see if it’s a prescription windscreen or our generation’s sliced bread.
As I mentioned in part 1 of Wi-Fi - The Cause of and Solution to All of Life’s Problems I want to look at the technologies that make up the latest protocol 802.11ax or Wi-Fi 6 as it is being labelled, and also how that will work in conjunction with 5G technologies for the brave new world of gigabit wireless. We will also look at the hardware that makes up a wireless network from access points to controllers and PoE switches.
The Wi-Fi Alliance, in all their wisdom, have decided that the 802.11ac and ax protocol names were too complicated for us mere mortals so have changed them to Wi-Fi 5 and 6 respectively, and we will use these version numbers moving forward.
So what’s new pussy cat? Well, a lot actually. We know and expect that speeds will increase with each new iteration of Wi-Fi, and this is most certainly the case here, but it is not all about speed. Wi-Fi 5 had good speeds on paper but performance in crowded or congested areas could slow it to a crawl. Wi-Fi 6 has made great strides in these areas as it looks to future-proof from the IoT era that is upon us. There are more than 50 updated features, so let’s look at some of the more significant ones individually.
Speed – Approx 10Gbps. This is up 10x from the previous best we could muster with Wi-Fi 5. Wi-Fi 6 uses 1024-QAM (described in part 1 here) to increase its data rates by 25% on the previous best (10 bits, up from 8). The game changing features for the speed are really associated with multi-client access though.
Multi-client Access – The first difference is with MU–MIMO (multiple user, multiple in, multiple out) which has moved from a 4x4:4 to 8x8:8 (8 for sending, 8 for receiving). This means that the available bandwidth is broken into 8 spatial streams. Imagine the wait for 16 people at one till in the supermarket. Now imagine the wait if 8 tills were open!!! This widening of this road will make Wi-Fi 6 much more adept at dealing with crowded areas.
The second major difference is the use of Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiple Access (OFDMA from now on I promise!). With OFDMA the frequency range that would make up a traditional channel is split into multiple sub-channels. As many as 30 clients will be able to use the channel at the one time. Used in conjunction with MU-MIMO and using the previous shopping analogy as a guide, we now have 8 queues, with 8 cashiers and the cashiers can handle up to 30 people at the one time. Now we’re sucking diesel as my old man would say!
Basic Service Set Coloring (BSS) is another update to the Wi-Fi 6 arsenal. This allows for multiple access points (APs) on the same channel to communicate at the same time. The data is transmitted with a ‘color’ identifier which tells the AP whose data is whose. We also have improved Beamforming for directing the signal towards the client and a new feature called wake time scheduling. This feature enables APs to tell your device to sleep and provides a schedule of when it should wake up. Although they will be very short periods of sleep, this will add up to significant savings in battery time.
We are going to skip the debate about on-premises or cloud-managed architectures and talk generally about the devices that make up a decent sized network. Nominally the wireless controller, access points and PoE switches. These can be on a licensed model that is used by the likes of Cisco and Aruba, or an unlicensed model which is used by Ubiquiti and a fairly new player in the world of wireless, Edgecore.
There are pros and cons to each model I have a mentioned, so let’s compare and contrast the APs and the controllers for an on-premises architecture.
Keeping the specs the same, or as close as I can, I am looking at Cisco’s Aironet 2800 series and Aruba’s 320 series against Ubiquiti’s UniFi AP PRO-HD and Edgecore’s ECW5410-L. They are all Wi-Fi 5, wave 2, 4x4:4 MIMO, dual radio with beamforming and wall mountable.
Price – Only one winner here all day long. Ubiquiti and Edgecore come in well below the others and this is even before the licensing is taken into account.
Winner – Ubiquiti and Edgecore
Access Point Specifications – This is a tough one to compare as I selected these APs due to their similarities in this regard. On top of the matching specs already mentioned, we also have airtime fairness, band steering, L2 firewall and more in common.
Winner – Draw
Configuration and Management (Controller) – This is pretty important when selecting which AP model to go for. When dealing with larger installations you really do not want to manually configure and manage each AP so we use a WLAN controller. Cisco’s Aironet range are highly configurable through the controller and allow for granular control of the environment. If you are looking for all the bells and whistles and price is not an option this is your guy.
Edgecore’s EWS series gateway-controllers also come well stocked with a complete suite of software-based management tools from AP discovery, grouping, load balancing, rogue detection and more.
Winner – Depends what’s important to you. If it is price and ease of use, then Edgecore is a clear winner. If you are looking for the ability to have really fine grain control over your network then Cisco is your man.
Overall Winner – It really all comes down to what is important to your organization. Ubiquiti and Edgecore significantly cheaper then Cisco and Aruba. Their APs have also caught up with the big guys and the software isn’t far behind either. Cisco and Aruba have far better support structures in place and this is the main reason for the confidence their high-end enterprise customers have in them. No one ever got fired for buying Cisco and all that!! Ubiquiti or Edgecore would be an excellent choice though for SMEs or even the hospitality and education sectors where the granular control becomes a little less important and where price and ease of use becomes paramount.
As always, I would be more than happy to share additional resources with you or for more technical information on products or Wi-Fi give me a shout also you can browse our Wi-Fi products here.
Slán go fóill,