New Wi-Fi technology is in huge demand right now, with products being developed almost continuously. There is absolutely no reason to believe that this pace will slow down in the foreseeable future either. With all of this innovation coming from many different sources there easily could be many "incompatibility train wrecks." Thankfully, Wi-Fi Alliance is doing their part to make sure the compatibility train stays upright and on the right tracks.
It certainly is no small task to create standards that are accurate, spelled out in explicit detail, and eventually ratified by the IEEE governing body. Like anything this important and affecting so many people it just takes time to get a consensus. Still equipment manufacturers are not afforded the same luxury of patience. Needing to keep their companies profitable, they study the new proposal and related drafts, make a decision, and ultimately bring products to market that they feel will best represent the future standard.Is this a problem?
As we all know, what “Company A” feels is the best engineering approach for a new piece of technology is more than likely not what “Company B” feels is the correct method—I submit Blu-ray versus HD DVD as a perfect example. So the equipment developers at “Company A” and “Company B” use different approaches to develop equipment for the marketplace. Both companies then advertise that the equipment will faithfully meet or exceed the parameters laid out by the non-ratified standard. That is all well and good, even necessary as developers need sufficient RoI to cover their research and development. It also assures the consumer that the best technological approach will eventually win out.
Along the evolutionary path to “the survival of the fittest”, many challenges surface because of the subtle and on occasion not so subtle differences built into each developer’s equipment. It can and usually does affect how the devices interact with each other, typically in a negative way. This can be seen when testing 802.11n Draft 2 devices. The advertised data rates are only achieved when the tests are ran using AP and client equipment from the same manufacturer.
Another significant problem arises from the very nature of Wi-Fi technology which is based on RF propagation. For example, we all have experienced deteriorated link quality when multiple—same make and model—devices are in the same location. This problem compounds itself when devices using different RF technology are within range. An example of this would be how some devices using proprietary methods to achieve higher data rates—such as channel linking—totally destroy any ability to achieve normal connectivity by a standard 802.11 network that is within range of the proprietary network.Wi-Fi Alliance to the rescue
The Wi-Fi Alliance is a world-wide organization established in 1999 with a goal of creating testing and certification programs to ensure the interoperability of WLAN products based on the IEEE 802.11 standard. This is exactly what the industry needed to help avoid the painful train wrecks and create consumer confidence in Wi-Fi products and services. The Wi-Fi Alliance also has proactively helped the Wi-Fi industry with regards to security. By acting as a go-between the slow moving 802.11 governing board and the fast-paced equipment developers, the Wi-Fi Alliance created interim encryption methodology—WPA and WPA2—that probably prevented a major lack of confidence by both home and enterprise consumers.
Initially the Wi-Fi Alliance was only concerned about functionality between computers using wireless network adaptors and access points. With increased consumer expectations and the plethora of wireless enabled devices on the market has required the Wi-Fi Alliance to develop many more programs. The list of devices that can obtain certification includes WLAN equipment, USB wireless clients, PDAs, handheld computers, Cellular and Wi-Fi phones, 3G and Wi-Fi external cards, music adapters, cameras and VoIP equipment that uses Wi-Fi access.
So, how does this work? Equipment developers voluntarily have the Wi-Fi Alliance certify their equipment in three major areas:
• Compatibility: which means the device has been tested for connectivity with other certified equipment.
• Conformance: assures that the equipment conforms to the applicable 802.11 specifications.
• Performance: is tested to prove that it meets end-user expectations. This testing is not based on any standard or comparative study with different equipment. The device just has to meet certain performance requirements established by the Wi-Fi Alliance.
The following is a list of the actual certification programs as published by the Wi-Fi Alliance:
• Wi-Fi products based on IEEE radio standards-802.11a, 802.11b, 802.11g in single, dual mode (802.11b and 802.11g) or multi-band (2.4GHz and 5GHz) products. Now also required by CTIA for Wi-Fi enabled handsets seeking CTIA certification.
• Wi-Fi wireless network security-WPA (Wi-Fi Protected Access™) and WPA2 (Wi-Fi Protected Access 2).
• EAP (Extensible Authentication Protocol)-An authentication mechanism used to validate the identity of network devices (for enterprise devices).
• Next-generation Wi-Fi–support for the IEEE 802.11n draft 2.0 radio standard.
• Set-up of security features-Wi-Fi Protected Setup™ facilitates easy set-up of security using a Personal Identification Number (PIN) or a button located on the Wi-Fi device. Support for multimedia content over Wi-Fi networks-WMM (Wi-Fi Multimedia) enables Wi-Fi networks to prioritize traffic generated by different applications, using Quality of Service (QoS) mechanisms.
• Power savings for multimedia content over Wi-Fi networks - WMM Power Save helps conserve battery life while using voice and multimedia applications by managing the time the device spends in sleep mode.
• For converged devices with both Wi-Fi and cellular technology-provides detailed information about the performance of the Wi-Fi radio in a converged handset, as well as how the cellular and Wi-Fi radios interact with one another. Now mandatory for Wi-Fi enabled handsets seeking CTIA certification.Significance of all this?
When you see the Wi-Fi certified logo on a piece of equipment, it should give you a certain amount of confidence that the device meets industry standards and will work correctly with other Wi-Fi equipment. The process is not perfect, but better than the alternative. This is especially important when considering 802.11n equipment. The Wi-Fi Alliance took it upon itself to develop a Draft n certification program to help both the equipment developers and consumers take advantage of this new and powerful technology.
Michael Kassner is currently a systems manager for an international company. Together with his son, he runs MKassner Net, a small IT publication consultancy.