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What's shaping the future of wireless networking technology?

Cloud-managed Wi-Fi, radio spectrum expansion and the hybrid workplace are some of the converging developments that are modernizing wireless networks.

The network-connected world is constantly evolving for businesses of all types. Sometimes, networking vendors push new technologies, but world events, like the COVID-19 pandemic, also shape how networking professionals do their jobs.

It's an interesting time now as several factors intersect to influence what comes next. In this article, we discuss network modernization from the perspective of Wi-Fi in the enterprise setting -- even as the enterprise itself is redefined.

WLAN models in flux

Most wireless LAN vendors that didn't start out cloud-centric are now headed that way, with the notion of the WLAN controller as a requirement becoming less desired. Controllers helped to propel WLAN into the centrally managed large scale, but they also introduced their share of bugs and other headaches.

The future of Wi-Fi certainly feels at least mostly cloud-managed with virtual LAN aggregation devices -- like the Mist Edge appliance -- used to simplify Layer 2 requirements in big networks. The days of on-premises management systems and controller stacks are waning, enabling engineers to get back to being WLAN experts more than hardware box farmers.

State of radio technology

For future-facing wireless network environments, the radio space is seeing several developments. In the U.S., 6 GHz is all the buzz as it's been added to the 802.11ax standard, also known as Wi-Fi 6E, and will be part of Wi-Fi 7.

This expansion adds massive amounts of spectrum for WLAN, and the overall effect on how the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands get overdue relief has yet to play out. But 6 GHz is here to stay as manifested in the latest access points (APs), and it could be transformative if wireless vendors and device makers handle it properly.

Interestingly, device makers are also realizing what WLAN administrators have known for a long time: Not every wireless device is a good candidate for Wi-Fi. Private 5G, Long-Range WAN, 60 GHz and a range of unlicensed frequencies below 1,000 MHz are seeing purpose-specific devices being built that can use different benefits for their respective use cases. Future WLAN admins should make an effort to understand a range of access technologies beyond Wi-Fi.

The network underpinnings

For many years, switch makers have been trying to get WLAN customers to buy into the idea of needing higher-speed switchports and more Power over Ethernet (PoE), which make for pricier Ethernet ports. With Wi-Fi 6E now in play and Wi-Fi 7 on the horizon, network admins are at the point where they need to consider uplink ports to APs that can provide 2.5 Gbps, 5 Gbps or 10 Gbps connectivity and beefier PoE than ever.

Though enterprises are looking at more expensive switches going forward, many environments won't need as many overall Ethernet switches as more devices go true high-speed wireless and don't need that wired connection anymore.

The hybrid effect

The COVID-19 years were challenging to many networks in many ways, including sending employees home to work. The legacy workplace rhythm of many workers going to the office every day to access the enterprise LAN has been forever altered. It's now commonplace to somehow support hybrid or full-time remote staff through a number of methodologies.

Some APs can tunnel back to the big network and extend the corporate service set identifier into the home, enabling central management of distributed APs. Other environments use Microsoft's Active Directory capabilities or something similar to do auto VPN functionality on organizationally administered devices.

Regardless of how remote users are supported, they are here to stay. As central WLAN systems are updated, new services are usually available to keep dispersed employees in good, secure technical shape when it comes to Wi-Fi.

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