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Wireless: Article

Delivering Breakthrough Performance with 802.11ac

Breaking the wireless Ethernet gigabit barrier

Consumers are continuing to adopt multiple connected devices and video content is expected to reach more than 70 percent of global traffic. This growth and the increased reliance on wireless networks is putting stress on existing 802.11a/b/g/n networks. As a result of this high usage, users are likely to experience deteriorated performance, choppy videos and slower load times. At a time when IT managers report that network users are now averaging more than one Wi-Fi connected device per person, solutions to handle the rapid growth of devices are at a premium.

The next generation of the 802.11 standard, or IEEE 802.11ac, promises to finally break the wireless Ethernet gigabit barrier. This technology will deliver higher bandwidth while retaining better quality of experience (QoE) for end users, and is expected to be adopted rapidly into all markets: residential, enterprise, carrier and large venue.

Some of the first applications for 802.11ac's faster speeds will better residential video streaming, data syncing between mobile devices, and data backup. Streaming digital media between devices faster and simultaneously connecting more wireless devices will be some of the starting benefits for consumers and enterprises. In terms of service providers, they will be able to deploy the new technology to offload traffic from congested 3G and 4G-LTE cellular networks, and in dense operator hotspots 802.11ac will supply better performance to more users.

To date, all 802.11 revisions have focused on increasing transport speeds, which lead to higher traffic delivery rates and ultimately to faster response times as experienced by the end user. The introduction of 802.11n brought advances of MIMO (multiple-in, multiple-out) to deliver traffic over multiple spatial streams, and packet aggregation. MIMO delivered marked improvements in physical transport rates, enabling more bits per second to be transmitted than ever before over Wi-Fi. Packet aggregation delivered equally impressive improvements in transport experience, allowing devices to send more data once they had gained access to the wireless media. The new 802.11ac protocol is continuing down this path by preserving aggregation techniques, advancing the physical transport rates yet again, and introducing the concept of parallel transport into Wi-Fi through a technique known as Multi-User MIMO (MU-MIMO), where multiple client devices are receiving packets concurrently.

This is the first time Wi-Fi history that directed traffic can be delivered to multiple client devices at the same time. This ability has significant impact on delivery of content to any location with multiple users, especially where content is revenue-generating or critical.

Achieving Increased Gigabit+ Performance with 802.11ac
In order to reach the best performance, 802.11ac uses a variety of advancements and addresses the need for performance improvement through three primary initiatives:

  1. Increasing Raw Bandwidth allows for the higher speeds associated with 802.11ac. It makes use of a higher rate encoding scheme known as 256-QAM, which transmits 33 percent more data than the 64-QAM used in the 802.11n standard. Signal-to-noise ratios that worked for 802.11n are no longer sufficient because the difference in detectable signal level is now significantly smaller.
  2. Multi-user Support makes 802.11ac a real information superhighway, unlike its predecessors that only allowed one device to transmit at a time. MU-MIMO allows an access point to transmit data to multiple client devices on the same channel at the same time. It works by directing some of the spatial streams to one client and other spatial streams to a second client. MU-MIMO is critical to performance improvements in environments with high client counts.
  3. Individual Client Channel Optimization is also a major performance booster. The concept behind channel optimization is transmit beamforming (TxBF). The reflections and attenuations, common during the transmission of 802.11 signals, have a significant performance impact on overall network performance. With TxBF, the access point communicates with the client devices to determine the types of impairment that are present in the environment. Then the access point "precodes" the transmitted frame with the inverse of the impairment such that when the next frame is transmitted and transformed by the medium, it is received as a clean frame by the client. Since no two clients are in the same location, TxBF needs to be applied on a client-by-client basis and constantly updated to reflect the changing environment.

Overcoming Technical Challenges
One of the biggest frustration for developers and users of 802.11 is that it needs to work with previous versions. It can also be extremely difficult to identify the root cause of development problems. For example, when an application performs poorly, it is often hard to determine if it is due to an environmental, client, or network issue. The various devices in an 802.11 network are highly correlated so an issue in one area quickly ripples through to many other areas. Developers have lacked an effective means to assess the total picture from the RF to the application layer.

IEEE 802.11ac makes this problem significantly more challenging. In addition to being deployed into an existing environment with ten years' worth of previous releases, 802.11ac makes use of advanced technologies that are substantially more complex and demanding than previous versions. This latest generation of 802.11 requires a rethinking of how the technology is developed and tested to include a much more holistic view through the product development life cycle.

Traditionally, the RF section is verified using one set of equipment, and then the upper layer functions are tested using a second set of tools. The overall technical complexity and the introduction of new technologies such as TxBF demand coordination and control between the different layers of the protocol stack. Without this coordination, it would be difficult to utilize these functions and to quickly pinpoint performance issues.

802.11ac brings the promise of moving Wi-Fi into the limelight as a trusted and capable communication protocol, and will require equipment and rigor to match. The new generation of testing should be able to decode every frame in real-time and determine each frame's RF characteristics, as well as their frame-level performance, and generate every frame without limitation in real-time to adequately test receiver performance. Previous approaches use a digitized data record approach for both generation and analysis, creating or capturing what are known as I/Q files, and equipment typically adapted from the general-purpose RF domain. This result in equipment being capable of a single spatial stream, and able to generate or capture a small fraction of the frames required to perform testing. To meet the need, the approach needs to be able to generate and analyze all frames in real-time to the limit of the specification, tightly integrate RF and MAC functionality in 802.11ac, and include integral, real-time channel emulation to address TxBF performance.

Increasing Performance for All Markets
Gigabit+ performance for residential, enterprise, carrier and large venue markets is possible with the 802.11ac standard. But to realize the performance and density promise, chip and hardware developers must navigate some significant technical challenges, as detailed in this article. They must ensure graceful migrations from existing deployed solutions by providing backward compatibility and delivering high performance RF transmission and receive performance with a wide variety of signals. They must maintain high performance to multiple clients under the channel conditions that will exist in real deployments, while at the same time provide the high reliability and feature robustness to enable enterprise and carrier grade 802.11 adoption. Ultimately, the developers need to ensure that the key application traffic - most notably video - can be delivered with quality.

More Stories By Joe Zeto

Joe Zeto serves as a technical marketing evangelist within Ixia’s marketing organization. He has over 17 years of experience in wireless and IP networking, both from the engineering and marketing sides. He has extensive knowledge and a global prospective of the networking market and the test and measurement industry.

Prior to joining Ixia, Joe was Director of Product Marketing at Spirent Communications running Enterprise Switching, Storage Networking, and Wireless Infrastructure product lines. He has a Juris Docorate from Loyola Law School, Los Angeles, CA.

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