Our WLAN Cheese Will Get Seriously Moved, But When?

By Lee Badman, Blog Contributor
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Be forewarned: this blog has more questions than answers. I can't be the only one doing a bit of eye-rubbing, face-palming, and head scratching about what comes "next" in the insanely fast evolution of Wireless. I've seen online colleagues speculate that perhaps Identity management is the next big thing,  or any of a number of other singular technologies bolted up to our beloved 802.11 networks. My own take on "what comes next" for wireless? I say that it's a faulty question.

At the risk of putting too fine a point on it, to question what comes next for the WLAN is to think serially at a time when a slew of new influences are all gathering steam. It also implies a bit of the dated "old school" Wi-Fi thinking, when WLAN was an accessory to the wired network, and Ethernet was where connectivity of any real consequence happened. Now, we're at a place where networks are touted as being "borderless", "unified" or simply have no distinction made between wireless and wired access. We now have impressive magic-in-the-middle afoot (like Aruba's Clearpass and Cisco's ISE) that provides the smarts to back up the claims of tight integration between Ethernet and WLAN, and gets users and their devices in many combinations onto either or both access mediums. To ask what comes next for the WLAN in many ways now is to ask what comes next for the network? Even slick location based technologies and analytics that come with them are getting overplayed in the media. So instead of asking what comes next in wireless, I'll ask this: when will all the funky network things on the near horizon actually get deep enough into the WLAN paradigm to make a difference?

Funky network things… like what, you say? Not BYOD- we've pretty much hyped that to death. We still have to contend with it, but it's a beast that's lost it's bite and we're now years into it despite the occasional marketing beat-down of the almost-dead horse. And not so much 802.11ac, but I don't completely relegate this one to the "old hat" category. I know well that there are vendors not even shipping 11ac product (and that the standard isn't quite yet "official" even at this point), yet the early .11ac story has been told frequently enough that we yawn a bit over it too, already. (I reserve the right to get excited again when Wave 2 gets better defined, and to go nuts if we ever get to a Wave 3 and 4.) The networky things that I'm keeping an eye on to rock the WLAN world are somewhat un-wireless, per se.

As I recently bloviated about on my Wirednot blog, I've worked myself into a groove where I'm  trying to come to grips with the likes of IPv6 and SDN as they both might mpact the WLAN. Let's hit each of these in brief.

Depending on where your wireless compass is pointing right now, you're either ahead of me and actually doing legitimate IPv6 over wireless, with me in trying to figure out how to tame what you have and march forward sensibly, or are choosing to let others suffer the pain and learn from them for later implementation. It's not that IPv6 is so difficult to comprehend academically, but rather it feels wildly variable when applied to WLAN building blocks because not only are vendors at different levels of maturity for IPv6 support, but the version of code that your controllers and such are on also have an impact on how far you can go with it. It certainly takes the comfort that many of us have worked hard to gain on already-complicated Wi-Fi systems and adds a new dimension of mastery to be achieved. And achieve it we must… but the "when" isn't so clear against the backdrop of each one of our own bigger Enterprise IPv6 stories.

Then there's Software Defined Networking. SDN was certainly a hot topic during 2013, and will only become more front-and-center this year. But the human side of SDN is already getting muddy, as it means different things to different people. I've talked to smart managers and directors that see SDN as fit only for the Data Center, yet many vendors have SDN painted end-to-end across the network in their presentations even if it's not clear how we get there yet. WLAN controllers are often held up as an analogy for SDN with central control and other distributed functions, yet none of them (that I know of) have a lick to do with the likes of VXLAN and OpenFlow. I've seen mention by Cisco and Extreme Networks on SDN in their wireless lines, but they don't appear to be that sort of SDN. But again, you know that all-encompassing SDN is coming at SOME point, and big WLAN as we know it will never be the same.

Beyond our cheese eventually  getting moved by IPv6 and SDN, something also has to break in a big way soon between Mobile and WLAN. Small cells are a simmering technology that the planets just haven't aligned right for yet. But with so many mobile devices out there stressing the carriers' networks while their owners get tired of burning through pricey data plans, something has to develop in this regard soon -and in a fashion that becomes viable for players in both industries, and customers alike. I look for seemless inter-technology roaming to be at the front of this story. Bluetooth's eventual integration into the same IP networks where our WLAN hardware play, enabled by IPv6 and Bluetooth version 4.1 will also be pretty transformative.

I realize this is a bit of heavy fretting going on here. But we all know by now that the WLAN of just a few years ago has morphed into a major part of the collective network fabric of today, and so we gotta play the "what if, and when" game now and then. What else do you see coming that will change WLAN as we know it? When do we start worrying about each?