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Disruptive tech and its impact on wireless protocols and networks

How are disruptive technology trends like BYOD and IoT impacting wireless networks? Networking expert Craig Mathias explains in this Q&A.

The topic of mobility is an increasingly important one in IT circles these days. So important, in fact, that Craig Mathias, principal at Farpoint Group, a networking consultancy based in Ashland, Mass., says mobility is a strategic issue for CIOs. Providing information to employees (as well as contractors and customers) on an anytime, anywhere basis -- no matter the device and over whatever network is available -- is good for business, he says.

In this Q&A interview, Mathias points to rapid developments -- and unsolved problems -- around enterprise mobility management and the Internet of Things (IoT); explains how new and upcoming wireless protocols, including 802.11ac, 802.11ad and 802.11ax, will deliver enough network capacity to keep your users' mobile devices satiated for years to come; and weighs in on the networking skills that will be most important in your networking department.

Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length.

With all the disruptive technology out there -- for example, BYOD and Internet of Things (which may or may not involve mobile devices) -- as well as new things happening in wireless protocols and enterprise mobility management tools, what should be most important to CIOs when it comes to supporting mobile devices on the corporate network?

It's not just about mobility and it's not just about IT. It's about aligning everything that you do with the overall objectives of the organization.
Craig Mathiasprincipal, Farpoint Group

Craig Mathias: You always have to go back to the beginning. This is a conversation I have with CIOs all the time. It's not just about mobility and it's not just about IT. It's about aligning everything that you do with the overall objectives of the organization. What is the organization's mission? What is it trying to do? What results is it trying to achieve in terms of growth or sales or customer satisfaction or whatever? You want to make sure that everything that you do in IT is aligned with that. And now we're going to be doing everything in IT on an anytime, anywhere basis. So, all of the elements you just mentioned are important. But the relative importance will vary based on what the overall corporate mission is.

You mentioned enterprise mobility management. That's one of those 'jacks or better' things that you have to have. [Enterprise mobility management involves] a fairly complex set of capabilities. It's not just mobile devices; it includes applications and content and policy and expense and security. There's an awful lot there.

I don't want to give you the impression that we know everything we need to know about mobility or that we have all the tools we need. There's still a lot of diversity out there. There's at least 50 companies in the enterprise mobility management space that really matter, and there are probably hundreds more that are contributing in one way or another. It's almost impossible, even for the analyst community, to keep up with everything that's happening there. This whole element of mobility is not an easy aspect of IT. In fact, it adds a number of complicating factors.

Craig MathiasCraig Mathias

You mentioned Internet of Things. Internet of Things is not a new concept. It's been around for a long time. We used to call it telemetry or sensor-based computing. But the idea that we can do it today at a very low cost and that we can automate so many applications -- medical applications, security, energy management, all kinds of things like that -- means that there's going to be more and more happening on the network over time. And many of those applications will be mobile. (Not everything in IoT is mobile, but a lot of it will be.) So planning for that in terms of capacity, [security and cost is] made more complex.

So, even though mobility opens up a lot of opportunities, it does come with a set of costs that we didn't have before.

Let's talk about wireless protocols. How is 802.11ac impacting strategy around corporate networks?

Mathias: We've already seen a broad trend toward the wireless-only enterprise. It could be argued that Wi-Fi is really the only network you need inside the building. It can do voice, it can do data, it can do video. But the more applications and services we put on to it, the more capacity we need and so that's the chief motivation for going to 802.11ac. It can generate an awful lot of capacity, and the quicker you get your bits on and off the air, the more time is left over for my bits.

802.11ac has been in broad deployment now for more than a year. Really leading-edge organizations have had it for longer than that. In fact, we're about to proceed to the next version of 802.11ac, which is loosely called Wave 2. Wave 2 [has] more capacity. But it's unlikely that we will see 802.11ac in its full glory, which is close to 7 Gbps. That doesn't seem very likely. There are technical reasons why that's hard to do.

If [Wi-Fi is] all about capacity and reliability, we have some work to do as an industry. And maybe even as nations.
Craig Mathiasprincipal, Farpoint Group

There is, however, another [wireless protocol] standard called 802.11ad, which uses frequencies in the 60 GHz band (802.11ac runs at 5 GHz). As you get up into these very high frequencies, you have a lot of spectrum available to you, between 7 and 9 GHz of total spectrum (there's only about 1 GHz available in the 5 GHz bands). The signals themselves become very directional, very line of sight. Think about that. You could actually run four close-to-7-Gbps channels simultaneously in the 60 GHz band. So if you have a large open-office environment, or maybe only one wall to go through (it will go through some walls), you have another technology you can take advantage of that offers tremendous capacity -- and very high throughput if that's what you're looking for as well.

And then there's another development beyond that called 802.11ax. We won't see that before 2018. It's being driven by some people at Huawei who developed a very interesting wireless technology based on orthogonal frequency division access. What this promises is on the order of 10 Gbps, which is a very magic number.

We recommend decommissioning anything before 802.11g. And quite soon we're going to recommend decommissioning 802.11g and 802.11a as well. We don't expect any N networks to be decommissioned before around 2018 or so. But we should be getting rid of G and A and B earlier than that; we shouldn't even support them anymore. They should be dropped from the standard, in my humble opinion, because they are really causing major problems today.

The next issue beyond that is that there are a lot of technologies that run in the same bands that we use for Wi-Fi. Bluetooth is a good example. In the 5 GHz bands, LTE, which is the technology that is coming to dominate cellular, will run in the unlicensed bands as well. And that's just deadly to Wi-Fi. So, we're going to need to think very carefully about spectrum management. We don't have good solutions to that yet. If it's all about capacity and reliability, we have some work to do as an industry. And maybe even as nations. The regulators might get involved in this as well. But right now, the problem is just coming to the surface.

What kinds of skills are going to be more important in IT departments that CIOs need to pay attention to in terms of supporting mobility from the network perspective?

Mathias: Probably the most important are analytical skills. Tools are starting to appear that allow you to take the large amount of data that's generated by networks -- what kind of traffic is going through them, what kinds of problems are coming up -- and build these huge databases and then you can look at this information graphically and even in real time and make decisions like, 'Oh, I need another access point over there.' Or, 'Gosh, it looks like we have a security problem over here,' or, 'I really should tweak this particular setting in the management console.'

Being able to understand at a very high level -- almost at an abstract level -- is much more important than having a detailed knowledge of TCP/IP. In other words, we're not going to worry about the low-level protocols so much any more. We're going to think more in terms of policy, reporting, analytics.

[Software-defined networking is] going to become a much more prevalent factor even in the wireless world going forward. We'll start to see virtualization of some functions (what we like to call network functions virtualization, or NFV), typically used in the carrier world, used in the enterprise world as well. And then consolidation of functions is important. We're starting to see products appear that take what used to be six different boxes -- firewalls, switches, gateways, routers, etc. -- and put it in a single box that can be managed remotely, for branch offices and such.

But the most important ability will be to think analytically about what's going on as opposed to having a detailed low-level knowledge of network, which has always been a requirement historically. …
This doesn't say that you won't need some very skilled network technicians around. You just won't need as many of them.

Next Steps

Read up on mesh networking as a potential architecture to handle the deluge of data created by the Internet of Things

Test your knowledge of mobile network tech

The blitz is on for 5G wireless technology

This was last published in March 2015

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