Wifi networks have become ubiquitous over the past few years. Everywhere you go, from McDonald's to the library, seems to have a wifi network. Cars, trains and buses are even equipped with wireless wifi.
But are all wireless networks alike? And if you're responsible for setting up a network for your business or organization, what do you need to know?
First off, while all wireless wifi networks operate using the same IEEE 802.11 standard, the way any given network is set up might vary. Here are several common wifi network setups:
Consumer WiFi - This setup is often found in homes and small offices. It is very straightforward, and simply involves an internet gateway of some fashion (via a cable or DSL modem, for instance) which is then connected to a wireless router. The router also serves as the access point and is equipped with one or more antennae. Configuration is achieved usually by connecting a computer to the router via ethernet cable and following a configuration wizard. In some configurations, the router and internet gateway are combined into one piece of equipment for a truly comprehensive solution.
Traditional Enterprise WiFi - The enterprise-level wireless wifi network is found in medium and larger offices, as well as hotels, educational institutions, and hospitals. This configuration involves an internet gateway, wireless access points placed at appropriate locations, routers to connect various subnets, and a hardware controller that manages the whole thing. These networks can cover a much larger area and are more powerful than traditional wifi, however design and implementation can become very complex, depending on the scope of the application. In addition, maintenance cost can be an issue over time, given the greater equipment investment as compared to traditional wifi.
Controllerless WiFi - An exciting new development in wireless wifi technology, controllerless wifi allows for an enterprise-level wifi solution without the need for a hardware controller (the network is managed with a virtual controller stored in the organization's data center). This gives an organization the freedom to craft a wireless wifi solution that perfectly fits it requirements, while dramatically reducing initial investment and long-term maintenance costs.
Increased security is another major benefit of controllerless wifi solutions. Previously, a wireless network's hardware controller was a major target for malicious hackers, as compromising it generally meant compromising not only the entire network, but a good amount of the devices connected to it.
Also, network performance is usually significantly improved in controllerless wifi environments, as device manufacturers come up with innovative ways to take advantage of the new technology to improve efficiency and reliability. A prime example of this is Adtran's Bluesocket wireless access points - designed for use in a controllerless environment - which splits the network control information from the actual data packets, processing them in two separate streams. This means that not only is more bandwidth kept open for actual data transmission, but in the event of a network interruption, Bluesocket access points can immediately jump to a functional virtual controller without impacting the end user experience.
Cloud Managed WiFi - Companies like Cisco Meraki have re-invented the latest next-gen controller technology that manages the WiFi, firewalls, switches, and even phone system 100% from the cloud. All programming and configuration can be done from anywhere in the world and shared with multiple admins, managers, and analysts. Adtran, HP, and others also have similar platforms.
Like any rapidly developing technology, wireless wifi is in a constant state of flux, which can be intimidating to the uninitiated. But the good news is that as the technology develops, solutions seem to be moving in the direction of more elegant and unified, and less complex. This can only make life easier for people tasked with the design and implementation of the next generation of wifi solutions.
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