802.11ac and 2.5G Ethernet Speeds: Enabling the Mobile Enterprise

By Nicholas Ilyadis, VP & CTO, Infrastructure & Networking Group, Broadcom

Nicholas Ilyadis, VP & CTO, Infrastructure & Networking Group, Broadcom

Network administrators and the enterprise networks they oversee are under siege. At every turn, there is pressure to deploy mega-scale data centers and migrate to cloud computing. And, with the amount of data doubling in size roughly every two years, administrators have to find new ways to digest, manage, store, and analyze big data. None of these are challenges that will go away anytime soon.

"One key trend enabling the emerging mobile enterprise is the successful deployment of 802.11ac wireless technology, also known as 5G WiFi, based on the latest IEEE standard"

To not only survive, but thrive, in this environment, enterprises have to adapt and they have to do it quickly. One way they are adapting is by leveraging the emerging mobile enterprise defined by a mobile and connected workforce. Enterprise employees have already begun migrating away from PCs in the workplace and toward smartphones and tablets. Increasingly, they are tapping into Wi-Fi networks on those devices during work and non-work hours. Some even bypass the wired network altogether and that’s making the ability to get online via Wi-Fi much more than a convenience; it’s becoming business critical. That connectivity, coupled with the enterprise’s embrace of mobile applications and cloud-based services, is breeding a workforce that is much more efficient and responsive, and in turn, workforce performance and business profitability are on the rise.

One key trend enabling the emerging mobile enterprise is the successful deployment of 802.11ac wireless technology, also known as 5G WiFi, based on the latest IEEE standard. 5G WiFi technology is 3x faster (reaching 3.6 Gbps) and 6x more power efficient than its predecessor, 802.11n. To realize its full potential, the mobile enterprise must be able to match the Gigabit speed of the traditional wired desktop. This is where 802.11ac comes in.

Even when operating at a less than optimal capacity, existing Wave 1 802.11ac networks may well exceed the performance of a 1-Gbps Ethernet uplink. Wave 2 of 802.11ac won’t ramp up until 2016, but when it does, it will support the use of the newer 2.5 Gbps Ethernet (2.5GBASE-T) wired network and 5 Gbps uplinks.

It’s this speed, along with the technical improvements and coverage efficiencies enabled by 802.11ac that are prompting rapid consumer and workforce migration to wireless Gigabit bandwidth performance. According to Infonetics Research, government and enterprise customers are moving faster to adopt 802.11ac then previous WLAN versions, with sales of 802.11ac access points (APs) up almost 10-fold over the past year alone. And that means not only an increase in enterprise WLAN usage, but increased demand for new WLAN equipment as well.

Why 802.11ac, you ask? One reason is the inclusion of multi-user Multiple Input Multiple Output (MU-MIMO) on the 5 GHz band, which is coming in Wave 2 of the standard. MU-MIMO boosts performance (a 100-percent speed increase over 802.11n) and enables enterprises to support more employees  and the myriad devices they chose to carry. It does this by allowing an AP to talk to multiple clients (wireless devices) simultaneously, rather than just one at a time.

802.11ac also supports beamforming and forward error correction (FEC) technology. Beamforming provides faster speeds at range and more consistent reliability, which can be especially helpful in the enterprise where APs typically have more memory, power and antennas. With beamforming, these APs can be optimized to reach the most clients in a specific location. Like beamforming, FEC improves the reliability of the wireless connection and ensures better coverage in tough to reach areas within the enterprise.

While the greater range and performance offered by Wave 2 802.11ac-enabled devices bodes well for enterprise employees, network administrators and their IT departments don’t fare quite so well. Because 802.11ac can match the speed of wired networks, traffic aggregated on APs will surpass multiple gigabits per second (Gbps) speeds. To achieve maximum performance throughout the total system, those Gigabit broadband speeds on the wireless end (up to 6.93 Gbps with Wave 2 802.11ac) must be matched by the same speeds on the wired back end. In other words, both the AP and the Ethernet switch ports must scale beyond 1000 Base-T (1 Gbps or 1G).

The problem is that while there are already millions of feet of installed copper Category 5e and Category 6 cabling in use today for 1 Gbps Ethernet networks, Cat5e cabling is not sufficient to handle 10 Gbps speeds up to the required 100 meter distance. Replacing that cabling could amount to a small fortune. Enterprise operators could add a second 1 Gbps Ethernet connection to enable multi-Gigabit bandwidth over existing network cabling. Or, they could simply move up to the next fastest IEEE standard of 10 Gbps Ethernet. Both options, however, require costly rewiring. The need for added cables, ports and even higher capacity switches further exacerbates that cost.

While new installs will likely use Cat 6A cable to enable 10G, most of the legacy installed base will stay with 1 Gbps. Or, if they need an uplink rate of greater than 1Gbps, they’ll extend their cabling, component and equipment investment in the enterprise wiring closet by adopting 2.5/5 Gbps.

The Multi-rate Gigabit Ethernet BASE-T or MGBASE-T Alliance is one industry group working to bridge the bandwidth gap between existing 1 Gbps to 10Gbps Ethernet networking gear by driving acceptance of a proposed Ethernet standard at 2.5 Gbps and 5 Gbps speeds. Its intent is to bring cost effective multi-rate gigabit performance to enterprise APs.

The Alliance’s work will play a critical role in the IEEE 802.3 standard body’s effort to standardize 2.5GBASE-T and 5GBASE-T Ethernet. The standard, which is currently being drafted, will focus on bringing multi-rate Gigabit Ethernet BASE-T to enterprise APs via a 2.5G and 5G proposal. Its emphasis will be on achieving this over current Cat 5e (2.5G over 100m) and Cat 6 (5G over 100m) installed cable.

Extending the wiring closet to support 2.5G/5G will provide a much more cost-effective way to scale network bandwidth to the enterprise APs, but it will also give enterprises more data-rate options to help them keep pace with the coming wave of wireless data demands. And, they’ll be free to dedicate resources to updating switches and transceivers. Some industry vendors have already begun developing physical layer transceivers to support the 2.5 and 5G Ethernet speeds.

It’s clear that enterprises are moving rapidly to embrace both mobility and wireless connectivity as they work to improve worker productivity and business profitability. The Gigabit speeds enabled by 802.11ac are just one factor making that transition possible. The ability to scale network bandwidth to the enterprise APs by extending the wiring closet to support 2.5G/5G is yet another trend easing that transition. Both promise to usher in a new era in computing one defined by the mobile enterprise all the while helping network administrators increase and optimize network capacity, security and flexibility, and keeping a lid on cost.