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WiFi on the air

WiFi is on its way to effectively becoming the 'radio' for the Internet of things.

Read time 4min 30sec

There is every indication that WiFi is preparing to become the de facto 'radio' for the Internet of things (IOT), providing the medium through which many thousands of uniquely identifiable embedded computing devices will be connected within the Internet infrastructure.

Wireless is today's access method of choice, complementing the advanced levels of connectivity of devices, systems and services made possible by the IOT. Underpinned by WiFi technology, the IOT is expected to usher in a new era of automation, as around four billion people gear up to use more than 30 billion devices by 2020.

Increasingly, buyers are finding that devices for home, business and institutional use are equipped with WiFi as standard. When connected, these devices generate significant amounts of traffic. For example, WiFi-enabled devices and equipment are able to identify their location, operational status and, when in use, constantly send data directly to relevant end-users or other devices. A wide range of device information-sharing scenarios are found in myriad corporate, manufacturing, entertainment, sporting and other arenas.

As can be expected, this places many added demands on network architectures. More users and devices challenge the quality of mobile experiences, as well as the mobile users' expectation that 'network usage should be simple, fast and smart' when they're on the go.

Giant leap for WiFi

Today's WiFi revolution is poised to take a significant leap beyond simply creating more network traffic. Enterprises are now looking at WiFi from a strategic perspective, rather than the tactical standpoint.

WiFi is ready to facilitate a critical learning process for many companies. For instance, by tracking mobile devices, businesses can gain valuable insights into how their employees, visitors and customers behave in certain situations. When combined with big data analytics, new business opportunities can be identified and improved user experiences can be designed.

However, these expectations are dependent on high reliability and excellent service from the WiFi solution in question. If the flow of data from WiFi-enabled devices is slow, productivity and customer experiences will most likely suffer.

This means networks of the future need to be designed with more than simply moving data in mind. They need to be planned and constructed to capture location information and data for analytics as well.

If WiFi is such a critical infrastructure in today's network designs, what features do networks need to incorporate in order to meet the challenges of the increasingly IOT-orientated mobile world?

One of the most important attributes is a flexible and adaptable architecture, with the levels of agility needed to adjust to changing requirements. This is key to providing the scalability required to meet both today's demands and tomorrow's requirements.

In this light, it must be remembered that not all WiFi solutions are created equal. For example, purpose-built network access points (APs) may be needed to meet scalability challenges. They should also be tested to ensure they supply the security, reliability and availability expected from enterprise-grade WiFi. In addition, specialised antennas designed to provide the cleanest signal must be selected.

Technically speaking, when designing a WiFi network for scale, it should be able to simultaneously support centralised and distributed traffic forwarding architectures within a single service set identifier (SSID), based on user role, device type, application and location.

It should contain multicast traffic independent of SSID or virtual LAN infrastructures, including 'noisy' protocols, while eliminating the bottleneck 'gateways' approach. At the same time, it should be capable of integrating third-party applications, including mobile device management, firewall, virtual hypervisor, unified communications and more.

Wireless future

Importantly, the design of a future-oriented WiFi network should be geared to accommodate continuous improvements in WiFi performance, while steadily reducing management complexities.

To achieve these goals, a critical element required for an evolving network is contextual-based access control (CBAC). Previously a feature of firewall software, CBAC is seen as the key to a framework that will assist with the onboarding of new users, devices and applications to the network.

WiFi is ready to facilitate a critical learning process for many companies.

Against this backdrop, the new framework will also be needed for bring your own device solutions in order to support 'browser-less' IOT devices, inclusive of passive onboarding and provisioning solutions.

In addition, contextual role-based policies at WiFi APs will have to be provisioned to provide security, quality of service priority, rate limiting and traffic forwarding modes, which are implemented based on the user's context: 'who you are, where you are, what device and application is being used'. Each policy must provide a granular control over what each user is able to access.

In summary, flexibility, adaptability and provisioning are key elements driving WiFi networks forward and allowing them to scale in future. As demand continues to grow, a centralised management and analytics solution encompassing an entire wired and wireless infrastructure will become mandatory. It is the only way to assure excellent experiences are being delivered to all WiFi users, all of the time.

Martin May

Regional director (Africa) of Extreme Networks.

Martin May is the regional director (Africa) of Extreme Networks. The author of the book: “Everything you need to know about networking”, he is a leading authority on infrastructure security using NAC, IDS/IPS and other network-based technologies. With experience gained in Russia, Germany, UK, the US and various parts of Africa, he is directly involved with system design and implementation at enterprise level. His emphasis is on the evolution in network architectures brought about by the concept of cloud computing. May hosts regular workshops assisting South African dealers and resellers to understand the implications, complications, opportunities and international trends surrounding the cloud. A proponent of social networking for business, he is active on Facebook and makes extensive use of YouTube.

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