Wi-Fi: Where we go when we leave the now!

Wi-Fi is 18 now!

The journey to now has been a tremendous one.

It started in 1999, yet it seems just like yesterday. Six companies (3ComAironetHarris SemiconductorLucentNokia and Symbol Technologies) came together to form a global non-profit association Wi-Fi Alliance. The objective of Wi-Fi Alliance was to develop and validate multi-vendor interoperability using a new wireless networking technology (802.11 protocol created in 1997). Shortly after, in year 2000, Wi-Fi alliance delivered the first standard 802.11b (11 Mbps in 2.4GHz band). Wi-Fi was gaining attention by retailers especially as they needed wireless bar code scanners, price verifiers etc.

I remember the days at WalMart (I was at Symbol Technologies in those days which got later acquired by Motorola, then acquired by Zebra and recently acquired by Extreme Networks), we were building and deploying wireless LAN controller and experiencing the challenges in front of Wi-Fi. In those days, it was not just about performance, interference, or coverage, but security of wireless itself was a huge issue too.  First came WEP as the security algorithm for wireless network but it had serious flaws. Three researchers working at Berkeley produced a paper named “(In)Security of the WEP algorithm“ and then U.S. FBI demonstrated how to break it using publicly available tools.  The second one was WPA. WPA was originally meant as a wrapper to WEP which tackles the insecurities caused by WEP. It was actually never meant as a security standard but just as a quick fix until WPA2 became available. It had flaws and hacker community demonstrated!  In fact, we used VPN on top of security protocols of wireless!  The unbreakable WPA 2 (making use of CCMP for cryptographic encapsulation) became available in 2004 as the protocol for secure wireless and it is still good.

While the security challenge was being tackled, Wi-Fi alliance continued to work on performance. It delivered 802.11a in 2002 with potential to provide 54 Mbps in 5GHz band. 802.11a did not pick up but not to worry, 802.11g came in 2003 providing 54 Mbps in 2.4 GHz band and it was loved. 802.11g gained popularity and mass deployments began shortly after. Many other companies were working on wireless networking equipment such as Aironet (later acquired by Cisco), Aruba (later acquired by HP), Ruckus Wireless (later acquired by Brocade, and recently acquired by Broadcom) and Meru Networks (later acquired by Fortinet). The world was changing. The excitement of wireless drove cities to become Wi-Fi enabled. Jerusalem, Israelbecame the first city to provide city Wi-Fi in 2004, followed by Mysore, India and Sunnyvale, California shortly after.

Even, Merriam Webster dictionary added Wi-Fi as a word in 2005. Although it was in dictionary, many businesses had deployed Wi-Fi, and some cities had city wide Wi-Fi, Wi-Fi gained true momentum only after “Wi-Fi only iPod”, iPhone, Android and iPad were introduced. The 2010 launch of iPad changed the need of Wi-Fi from needed for internet access to needed for life!

Today, it could be argued that Maslow’s perception of what constituted basic physical needs has been surpassed by something even more fundamental – WiFi.

Over the years, along with standards, Wi-Fi Architecture has come a long way too. Many great innovations have transformed the Wi-Fi landscape.  In addition to the autonomous (also known as thick access point architecture) and controller based architectures (also known as split mac or thin access point architecture), innovation happened in form of controller less architecture (Aerohive Networks), single channel architecture (Meru Networks) and Beam forming for better experience (Ruckus Wireless). Cloud controller (Meraki, acquired by Cisco) came soon after and then multiple variations of cloud managed architectures.  Even SDN (software defined networking) touched the Wi-Fi architecture.  OpenFlow enabled Access Points came into the market as well as Meru Networks (later acquired by Fortinet) created world’s first OpenFlow enabled Wi-Fi Controller in 2014. Not only the standards and architecture evolved, the focus also evolved from just connectivity to enabling value added services such as Wi-Fi CallingLocation based services etc.

Having gone thru consolidation in the industry, cloudification of the architecture, need of connectivity becoming a basic need, and with Gigabit speeds available today, one can say that it has been an incredibly fulfilling journey. I personally feel blessed to be part of this journey. And, now where do we go from here! What does the future hold.

In the next two parts, I share my thoughts on what users and businesses are expecting from Wi-Fi in future as well as the direction that Wi-Fi standards or competing standards may take.

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