eWEEK Labs tests of some of the first 802.11a-based equipment out of the gate show that the new specification makes wireless networks better, stronger and fasterup to five times as fast as 802.11b-based systems.
This increase in throughput will not only boost users productivity but will also make wireless LANs an acceptable conduit for applications such as video and streaming media.
802.11a has a maximum stated throughput of 54M bps (vs. 11M bps for 802.11b), and products based on the specification are more secure and far easier to set up and manage than the first batch of 802.11b devices. In our tests of 802.11a-based access points and network cards from SMC Networks Worldwide and Proxim Inc., it took no more than 15 minutes to set up an 802.11a network.
Typical 802.11b performance is about half of the claimed 11M bps, and our performance tests of SMCs EZ Connect and Proxims Harmony show the same is true of 802.11a: Average throughput was about 28M bps.
To test the EZ Connect and Harmony devices, we used Intel Corp.s Iometer to generate a series of 2KB packets. Iometer places a transactional load on the network and mimics what a user performing intense file I/O might see.
We also tested both systems performance in "turbo" mode, an engineered performance increase that makes use of channel aggregation in the 802.11a standard. Performance in turbo mode should have delivered throughput of about 36M bps but in tests yielded only about 30M bps.
Although SMCs EZ Connect and Proxims Harmony are similar (they both use the same Atheros Communications Inc. 802.11a chip set), they are not competitors. SMCs EZ Connect is designed for small to medium-size businesses, while Harmony is geared toward enterprise organizations.
EZ Connect costs $365 per access point and $145 per adapter. Harmony costs $500 for each access point and $210 for each card.
Harmony also requires an extra device, the $1,495 Controller, for managing all access points on the network. The Controller is extremely useful for configuring an entire batch of access points in an organization, but it can manage only Proxim devices.
802.11a access points and cards can cost twice as much as 802.11b-based devices. However, bandwidth is shared, so 802.11as greater density will allow the same number of users per access point (64) to get better throughput than with 802.11b.
Although their performance, manageability and security make 802.11a-based systems a viable alternative to wired networks, early adopters face the stress of uncertain standards.
Products based on the IEEEs 802.11a standard cannot interoperate with the slower 802.11b units because they run on different bands. (802.11a runs on the 5GHz band while 802.11b runs on the more polluted 2.4GHz band).
Some vendors have stated their intention to add dual transceivers to future devices, but both SMC and Proxim officials said that they are only considering the possibility.
Further complicating matters is the IEEEs 802.11g specification, which was approved last November after much debate. 802.11g has the same performance potential as 802.11a and can interoperate with 802.11b-based systems because it also runs on the 2.4GHz band.
Vendors including Texas Instruments Inc. and Intersil Corp. have thrown their weight behind 802.11g, but products based on the specification are expected no earlier than late spring and are more likely to appear in the second half of the year.
Organizations that have widely deployed 802.11b-based networks should keep their eye on g-based products, but 802.11a-based systems are ready for prime-time deployment.
Additional testing by Francis Chu,
Henry Baltazar and Cameron SturdevantRelated stories:
As the director of eWEEK Labs, John manages a staff that tests and analyzes a wide range of corporate technology products. He has been instrumental in expanding eWEEK Labs' analyses into actual user environments, and has continually engineered the Labs for accurate portrayal of true enterprise infrastructures. John also writes eWEEK's 'Wide Angle' column, which challenges readers interested in enterprise products and strategies to reconsider old assumptions and think about existing IT problems in new ways. Prior to his tenure at eWEEK, which started in 1994, Taschek headed up the performance testing lab at PC/Computing magazine (now called Smart Business). Taschek got his start in IT in Washington D.C., holding various technical positions at the National Alliance of Business and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. There, he and his colleagues assisted the government office with integrating the Windows desktop operating system with HUD's legacy mainframe and mid-range servers.