09 February 2010

The Lessons Of Wi-Fi #2:Not All Wi-Fi Networks Are Standards Based

One the reasons for creating technical standards is to ensure interoperability between devices that need to work together. In the Wi-Fi world, the 802.11 standards serve this purpose, and encompass a very extensive set of guidelines that manufacturers of infrastructure and devices must follow to create a cohesive wireless system. Why then do we encounter situations in which Wi-Fi infrastructure is incompatible with Wi-Fi devices?

Those who forget the lessons of Wi-Fi are doomed to repeat them. Lesson #2: not all Wi-Fi networks are standards based. Some use proprietary technology that is not compatible with the way other Wi-Fi device manufacturers have designed their products.

Take, for example, Glenelg Country School and Frances Xavier Warde School, both of which experienced dropped connections with wireless classroom multimedia projectors. At Raytown C-2 School District radio interference affected laptops on rolling
computer carts, while at Prairie Cardiovascular Consultants interference was so bad that it affected both office and clinical operations. Others have reported issues with different models of PCs or Apple Macintosh computers and iPhones.

What's interesting about these cases is that the problems were traced to one common source: the wireless LAN infrastructure. Once the infrastructure was upgraded - in these cases to Aruba wireless LANs - the problems went away.

All of these sites had used a non-standard, proprietary single-channel wireless LAN architecture. There are only two companies in the industry that make such systems, and both are small niche players with shrinking market share.
So why would anyone buy such non-standard products in the first place?

Simple - product differentiation can be very alluring. It offers the opportunity for the adventurous to tout themselves as early adopters of what they hope will be "the next big thing." Wanting to be the first to use a new Apple iPad, Alienware laptop, or Google Nexus One makes perfect sense. These products embody innovative designs that redefine their markets. But they're also designed to work with existing networking infrastructure like 802.11 Wi-Fi - that they didn't redefine.

Where you run into serious trouble is deploying non-standards based infrastructure. That's akin to being the first to try a 156 Volt, 76 Hz electrical system in your house. Some devices might work, but you run the very considerable risk that others will crash and burn.

And that's what happened to the single channel wireless LAN customers. The reason single channel architecture hasn't caught on isn't because it's a secret waiting to be discovered. It's because there's a secret to what makes it run, and therefore interoperability is not assured.

When it comes to living on the bleeding edge of technology, consider the importance of interoperability. If a new technology has to be seamlessly integrated with other existing devices - as is the case with Wi-Fi networks and devices - then using a non-standards based product is just asking for trouble.

If you'd like to get the whole picture on Wi-Fi architecture you've only to download our free white paper, WLAN RF Architecture Primer. And leave it to someone else to relearn the lessons of Wi-Fi.