802.11n-compliant WLAN products are here

Cisco's Linksys is making noise with its release of new 802.11n-compliant WLAN products, specifically the WRT300N router and the WPC300N PC Card. They're supposed to be faster, more secure, and priced like a Linksys, so we should be happy. But before you envision your wireless Windows networks flying along at unprecedented speeds, take a reality break.

Granted, we (meaning me and a Wall St. wireless network administrator who wishes to remain nameless) were working with a WRT300N that was relatively new. Even so, I was disappointed when we pointed an 802.11g-capable HP notebook at the 300N and couldn't connect at standard 11g speeds. Throughput wasn't bad, but it was numerically slower than when we disabled the 300N and worked from our usual WRT54G access points.

More bad news: Linksys says some funny things about 802.11n performance, and while I know I'm not the sharpest tool in the shed, we didn't even come close to matching some of their claims. Chief among them was the "up to 12 times faster than standard G" claim. Standard G to me means 54Mbps. That would put 802.11n in the 648Mbps range. I scratched my head when I saw that, but later found references in Linksys' geek documentation saying that the 300N was theoretically capable of approximately 300Mbps (hence the name). Okay, more realistic, but geez, the best we got was 162Mbps and only for a few seconds. Our average throughput over two days of tinkering was about 115Mbps. Certainly quick, but nothing I'd classify as revolutionary.

Part of the 300N's problem is wireless signaling. In order to work at its best, Linksys' 802.11n really wants clean air space, which is difficult to come by in a downtown New York City office. This preference bore out when we had both the 300N and our older Linksys WRT54G working together, and we couldn't maintain a long-term connection with the WRT54G. Both our HP and IBM test notebooks dropped that connection repeatedly. Something to do with the amount of spectrum bandwidth that the 300N was taking up -- at least according to the wireless geek who was tinkering along with me.

The cause didn't bother me as much as the result. The only time the 300N was truly impressive was when we also installed the accompanying WPC300N PC Card adapter. The upside is that even at this early stage, installing the WPC300N was easy. Insert, load drivers, begin networking. We had zero installation difficulty using either the HP or the IBM test notebooks. The downside is that we had to do it all.

I just don't think it's worth upgrading 50, 100, 200, or more notebooks with US$150 PC Cards simply so they can connect to a more secure WLAN connection that's (maybe) flying along at 150Mbps. For an SMB that's most likely moving along at Fast Ethernet speeds on the wired side, having wireless users moving 25-50Mbps faster really doesn't make anything special happen. For an enterprise that spent enough to connect all the wired folks using 1Gbps copper, on the other hand, having them move from 50-75Mbps to 125Mbps+ still doesn't make anything special happen.

By the way, although I keep mentioning "more secure," 802.11n didn't improve our WPA2 experience. We implemented WPA2 using standard 802.11x with updated drivers, and the installation process was basically the same -- a pain.

For success in the enterprise space, 802.11n needs to become a ubiquitous part of the notebook, meaning notebook chipsets need to support it without the need for a third-party PC card. And that means straightening out this mess with 802.11g. Furthermore, a lot of work needs to be done on strengthening its performance and reliability in crowded airspace -- 2.4GHz harbors quite a lot of squatters, so it's no place for sensitive antennae.

And lastly, the process of implanting updated security needs to be easier. Downloading updated drivers is fine for a review, but it's just not enough when you're a network engineer facing a 50-machine upgrade.

Overall, we found the Linksys 300N router/PC Card couple fun to watch but still far from being worthy of big-time deployment.