Colleges Get Head Start on New 802.11n Standard

At least two years after many IT shops started using wireless access points and related gear based on a draft version of the latest Wi-Fi standard, 802.11n , the IEEE this month finally ratified the long-awaited specification .

The new standard, called WLAN Enhancements for Higher Throughput, adds support for video and other rich data streams and offers data rates of up to 600Mbit/sec. -- more than 10 times faster than current wireless standards.

The Sept. 11 vote by the IEEE Standards Association came seven years after work on 802.11n began and almost a year after the standards body had first projected it would be ratified.

"'N' is our future," said John Turner, director of networks and systems at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. He said the university now has about 110 access points (AP) from Aruba Networks Inc. that support both 802.11n and the earlier versions of the standard -- 802.11a, 802.11b and 802.11g. The school still has some 800 APs supporting only the three older 802.11 iterations.

All renovations and new construction at Brandeis must now include 802.11n-based gear. The older access points in existing buildings will be upgraded to add support for 802.11n during a network refresh scheduled for 2011, Turner said.

The University of California, San Diego has already installed about 2,400 Cisco Systems 802.11n APs in nearly 150 buildings, said Jim Madden, a UCSD network architect. The 18-month project, completed this summer, cost several million dollars.

The Cisco products replaced APs from Avaya Inc. that support the older standards. The change was made to address the growing bandwidth needs of students, faculty and staff, Madden said.

"[The older specs] certainly wouldn't have given us the bandwidth we needed," Madden said, noting that the use of video and other data-rich academic applications is expected to mushroom in coming years.

Even as Turner and Madden strongly endorse the use of 802.11n at their schools, both are dubious that wired networks will ever be eliminated from their campuses -- especially network backbones that sometimes run multiple 10 Gigabit Ethernet connections.

Turner said that while "wireless and mobility are the future of all edge technologies" and that the Brandeis network upgrade will eliminate wired ports in dorms, he still expects the school to continue using a wired backbone "for many reasons, including resiliency, security and throughput."

Madden noted that 802.11n networks may not be able to fully satisfy users as bandwidth requirements explode. "As a shared medium, it will be a long time before 'N' can satisfy the bandwidth requirements of very high-end computing for large numbers of people," he said.

Madden said his projections include the need to have 300 users simultaneously make 100Mbit/sec. transactions. "It's hard to accommodate that," he said.

This version of this story originally appeared in Computerworld 's print edition.

This story, "Colleges Get Head Start on New 802.11n Standard" was originally published by Computerworld.

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