This content is part of the Essential Guide: An 802.11ax survival guide: Expectations for the Wi-Fi standard

Aerohive's Atom, 802.11ax access points win innovation award

The winner of this month's Network Innovation Award, Aerohive Networks, has already begun shipping its new 802.11ax wireless APs and its plug-and-play 802.11ac Atom AP.

In 2007, an upstart networking startup called Aerohive Networks became the first to roll out intelligent, controllerless access points for the wireless LAN, presenting users with an alternative to the traditional, controller-based WLAN architecture.

A decade later, Aerohive would be first out of the gate again -- this time with a trio of prestandard 802.11ax access points and the industry's first enterprise-class, portable, plug-and-play 802.11ac access point, the Atom AP30. Together, Aerohive's new wireless LAN devices have earned TechTarget's Network Innovation Award.

Perry Correll, product management director at Aerohive, based in Milpitas, Calif., discussed the 802.11ax access points -- the AP630, AP650 and AP650X -- and the Atom AP30.

Editor's note: This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Why should we care about 802.11ax?

Perry Correll: The 802.11ax standard is totally different than any technology that has come before. Since the birth of Wi-Fi 21 years ago, a wireless access point could talk to only one device at a time. To meet demands of high-density environments, each new standard -- from 802.11b through 802.11ac Wave 2 -- just made those conversations faster.

In contrast, 802.11ax is high-efficiency, with multiuser connectivity that allows a single access point to talk to multiple devices simultaneously, both uploading and downloading. It is a huge difference.

You've already started shipping the Aerohive access points, but the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) likely won't release the new standard until 2019. Is it early to upgrade?

Correll: We are actually seeing more interest in the 802.11ax access points than in any other technology in the history of Aerohive. We've had people coming to us and saying, 'I need to upgrade now. I can't wait six months or a year, and I don't want to be locked into an old standard. I want something that will support what I need today, but will also grow with me.'

The 802.11ax access points will give you 11ac capabilities to support clients today, and when those 11ax clients do start showing up, you'll be ready to take advantage of the new technology. The analogy I like to use: When high-definition televisions first came out several years ago, very few movies or channels were high-definition. But everyone knew that was the way the industry was going, so people still bought the high-definition TVs, which worked with standard definition perfectly well. Then, as HD offerings started to show up more and more, they could get those, too.

Some people say we are a little ahead of the curve, but we're not. The IEEE passed draft three for 802.11ax, which pretty much stabilizes the technology. And the Wi-Fi Alliance is already starting their testing, so we're very comfortable with where the technology is. Right now 11ax is the shiny new object, but a year from now it will be the default. You're going to start seeing clients – laptops, tablets, smartphones, etc. – shipping to support 11ax by the end of the year, with large shipments in Q1 and Q2 next year.

Who are the early adopters of the 802.11ax access points, so far?

Correll: We're seeing particular interest from the education vertical. A lot of academic environments are BYOD, and typically they see people rotating their phones every 18 months, tablets every 18 to 24 months and laptops every 18 to 36 months.

Two years from now, they're going to see a tremendous number of 11ax clients, and even a classroom of just 20 students can easily have 50 connected devices. If they're trying to use Excel, then it's no big deal. But if they need to work with high-definition video, then the 802.11ax capabilities become hugely important. Some schools are just starting with 11ax in areas where they have the most density, like auditoriums and cafeterias. We're also seeing a lot of interest from public venues and convention spaces -- large, dense environments.

What other use cases do you see for 11ax?

Correll: In the internet-of-things world, the 802.11ax access points can negotiate devices' Target Wake Time -- telling a client how long to sleep before reconnecting to the network. It might tell your phone to go to sleep for just milliseconds at a time, which makes a tremendous difference for your battery life in the long run. But it might tell a smart thermostat that doesn't generate a lot of traffic to shut off its radio for 23 hours, 59 minutes and 40 seconds, waking up just once daily to send a temperature and humidity update, before going back to sleep.

Our access points also contain software-defined radios, which enable decision-making at the edge -- also known as fog computing. The typical Wi-Fi access point has one radio fixed in a 2.4 Ghz band and another radio fixed in a 5 GHz band, but probably about 80% of clients support the 5 GHz band. The idea of having 50% of your Wi-Fi capability limited to 2.4 never made sense to us.

With the Aerohive access points, users can set up the radios to match their client environment, or the access points can even dynamically detect changes and adjust accordingly.

Tell me about the Atom AP30. Does it work with the new 802.11ax access points?

Correll: Yes, it's all backwards-compatible. So, I could have a mixed environment with 11ax wireless APs covering central areas and AP30s filling smaller areas as needed.

The Atom AP30 itself is a very small, plug-and-play 802.11ac access point -- about 3 inches by 3 inches by 2 inches. Other vendors offer similarly sized wireless APs, but most of those are residential-class products. All our access points go through the full Wi-Fi Alliance certification process, so the Atom AP30 has the functionality of a traditional, enterprise-class device.

What problem does it solve?

Correll: We wanted to make an easy-to-deploy device to extend wireless coverage to a small area, like a dorm, hotel or hospital room. If I already have traditional Aerohive access points installed, I can plug an Atom AP30 into any wall jack, and it will boot up and find the existing network in about two minutes -- automatically setting up a wireless bridge and downloading any new configuration or firmware updates.

Large schools and enterprises have been purchasing several of these and giving them to the facilities teams. If a main access point in a classroom goes down in the middle of the day, a facilities person can walk into the room, plug an Atom access point into the wall, and two minutes later the network is back up and functioning. Deployment requires plugging it into an A/C jack -- that's it.

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