By Kaustubh Phanse – AirTight Chief Evangelist
If predictions from leading technology analyst firms are to be believed, the worldwide Wi-Fi market will continue to grow.
Dell’Oro estimates the Wi-Fi market to grow to $9.9 billion by 2016 of which the enterprise WLAN segment alone is estimated to be over $5 billion in revenues.
Gartner anticipates an even faster growth for the enterprise WLAN segment, with spending expected to reach $7.9 billion in 2016.
Here are a few trends (some of which are already happening!), which will go hand-in-hand with this next wave of massive growth in the enterprise WLAN market.
Distributed Wi-Fi, Centrally Managed
A growing number of enterprises will want to extend their Wi-Fi rollout across remote locations, e.g., branch offices, retail stores, distribution centers, restaurants, and the list could go on. The key challenge then would be to have centralized visibility and management of the entire deployment—ideally from a single console.
This trend will make the traditional controller-based architecture outdated sooner than later because it was not designed to manage Wi-Fi networks across geographically distributed sites. It’s too complex, costly, and does not scale. The change of guards is evidenced in the number of recent announcements by controller-based WLAN vendors. Some are hiding the controller in the cloud, some are hiding them in arrays, some are saying that they are giving customers a “choice” to turn it off (without telling them what functions will stop working without it!), while some are simply giving their marketing a “controller-less” spin. Unfortunately, you can’t turn a fork into a spoon overnight to eat soup instead of spaghetti! Or maybe you can!
Naturally, an increasing number of enterprises are looking for an alternative that:
Linearly scales to tens, hundreds or thousands of distributed locations, but can be managed centrally from a single console;
Enables literally plug-and-play installation and true zero-touch configuration of access points (APs) at remote sites without IT staff;
Is fault-tolerant by design so the full wireless network and security functionality continues to work without depending on access to a central management server;
Supports a new paradigm of network and security management and role-based administration of distributed locations in the context of locations and not in the context of “SSIDs” alone.
WLAN as a Managed Service
That brings me to my next trend, which will redefine how enterprise Wi-Fi networks are managed: Cloud! Enterprises have adopted cloud technologies in recent years to replace software applications that they once ran on their own network. But in 2013 and beyond, an increasing number of companies will look up to the cloud to manage their distributed Wi-Fi networks and related services such as wireless security and compliance. And in many cases, they will outsource their network and security management to managed service providers (MSPs). In fact, we have seen a significant growth in our partnerships with MSPs wanting to host cloud-managed WLAN services. But, not all clouds are made equal. So providers looking for cloud partnerships should carefully assess how cloudy is the cloud before making the leap. Only a true multi-tenant cloud solution will allow them to manage hundreds of customers in a cost-effective way, i.e., without having to host a server (appliance or VM instance) for every customer!
Bring Your Own Device (BYOD)
The BYOD trend, with employees using personal smartphones and tablets at work, has significantly driven Wi-Fi adoption and evolution over the last couple of years. It has also led to a growing trend of other unauthorized Wi-Fi devices, e.g., Rogue APs, Soft Rogue APs and mobile Wi-Fi hotspots, on enterprise networks. While mobile device management (MDM) and NAC vendors have tried to market themselves as the silver bullet for managing BYOD, neither of them have complete visibility into the Wi-Fi activity of these personal devices and hence cannot provide comprehensive access control for BYOD. Naturally, questions are being raised on whether MDM is really needed or is it dead?
A growing number of enterprises are opting for a reliable wireless intrusion prevention system (WIPS) – either as an overlay on top of existing WLAN solutions or as a built-in feature with their WLAN solution – to provide them with 24/7 wireless monitoring and policy enforcement, including BYOD. Automatic and accurate classification of Wi-Fi devices detected in the enterprise airspace, automatic fingerprinting and onboarding of smartphones and tablets onto the enterprise network, and the ability to reliably block any unauthorized devices or those violating security policies will be crucial to minimize security exposure and ensure compliance with regulatory requirements, while avoiding excessive burden on the IT security staff.
A New Standard, Higher Speeds!
Last, but not the least, 2013 is also expected to see the ratification of a new Wi-Fi standard in the form of IEEE 802.11ac, nicknamed as Gigabit Wi-Fi! 802.11ac uses wider channels (80 MHz and 160 MHz) as compared to 802.11n (20 MHz and 40 MHz) in the relatively clean 5 GHz frequency band and enables data rates up to 1.3 Gbps. Some pre-standard 802.11ac products are already in the market, with the approval of the standard expected in late 2013. Like it was the case with 802.11n, the early 802.11ac rollouts will be mainly access points. This year has already seen some rumors and some announcements of 802.11ac support in mobile devices. However, widespread adoption of 802.11ac is expected only by 2014-2015 when majority of Wi-Fi clients will support the standard. Till then, enterprises are likely to postpone the investment in an 802.11ac upgrade of their WLAN infrastructure to maximize the ROI.