Should an existing WLAN network be upgraded to 802.11ax now?

802.11ax has definitely brought a lot of awesome features making communication more secure, efficient and fast. The type of features and updates in 802.11ax will for sure change the way WLAN works and has been operating till now. Although everything turns out to be good OR rather best with 802.11ax, the question always remains; when would be a good time to invest in this technology? Well, we are still waiting for more 802.11ax capable devices. 2020 year-end may see a bright future with respect to implementation of 802.11ax. But not for sure! 

It becomes difficult for an IT executive to decide if this upgrade needs to be taken care of now because of the following changes:

  1. 802.11ax clients: While the AP vendors are already up to mark and releasing 802.11ax APs; client vendors are still working to get these chipsets implemented on new devices. We already have a lot of clients that support 802.11ax, but a disadvantage of this is that this requires a hardware upgrade. For many enterprises to replace the existing client hardware with a new one is challenging and costly. Without 802.11ax clients the deployment can only be considered future-ready and an enterprise WLAN network will not experience the advantages of new features supported by 802.11ax.
  1. Power Requirements: APs supporting 802.11ax needs 802.3bt power supply for supporting all the WiFi6 features. Of course, it can work with 802.3at, but not all features can be exploited with these power restrictions. Again, in most of the industries, the existing POE switches being used may not support 802.3bt power supply. This as well leads to a hardware replacement which again raises the question of need vs necessity. If you want to continue using 802.3at power supply, you may want to verify with AP vendor on which features will be enabled and which restrictions would apply.
  1. 802.3bz Support: While the standard does bring in a lot of speed to the WLAN network, it does also bring in 802.3bz support. This means the WiFi 6 capable Access Points would have 2.5G and 5G ports to support high speeds. This again brings in the necessity for the uplink (POE Switch) to negotiate to such speeds and support mGIG. As discussed in point 2, it becomes necessary to consider this as well when doing a hardware upgrade for the POE switch. It goes without saying that Ethernet Cables also needs to be audited for supporting these requirements.
  1. Port Aggregation: Port Aggregation may be needed if you want to achieve the highest links speeds supported by 802.11ax capable Access Points. As mentioned in point 3, a single AP Port can either be a 2.5G or a 5G port. So in order to achieve more speed, Port aggregation becomes mandatory. More POE hardware may be needed if the existing deployment was not doing any Port aggregation for their existing APs. With Port Aggregation almost double the number of ports will be required on the POE Switch which means more POE switches which again means more space consumption in rack.
  1. Advanced Skills required: 802.11ax brings in a lot of PHY and MAC advancements. Troubleshooting issues that may come up post 802.11ax deployment can bring in a lot of complications because there are a lot of variables that need to be looked at. Network administrators may have to upgrade his/her knowledge on 802.11ax technology and the features they plan to implement in their network.
  1. Introduction to 6E: FCC recently approved the usage of a new spectrum 6G (5.9GHz to 7.1GHz). This brings in a lot of frequencies and channels for Wireless devices to operate in an unlicensed category. However, if the devices (802.11ax capable) can be upgraded by software, it is still a question. Many vendors say that implementing this will be done by upgrading the hardware while few experts claim that this can be done by upgrading the software itself. While the discussions continue to happen and for these frequencies to get approval from the rest of the world, for a network administrator it does become necessary to answer this question: “Wait for 6E OR to go ahead with WiFi 6”.
  1. WLAN Survey: Last but not least, a WiFi survey will be needed. A rip and replace method may not be ideal to upgrade to 802.11ax Access Points as lot of features will be compromised if not placed them correctly. This may change the existing placement of APs which may include changes like physical structure or cable lengths. 

Vendors do have a smart way to come up with these hiccups and give a better solution. And each vendor solution has its own advantages. But it does make sense to bring the above requirements on the table before deciding to completely move to a 802.11ax based WLAN network.

It for sure is always advantageous to have a future-ready solution implemented. But we do need to decide wisely on what do we want in the future. 

Happy Learning and Implementing 802.11ax! 

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