Small Cells Repeats the Enterprise Evolution Cycle

May 20, 2013

It’s remarkable, the evolution that small cells are going through right now. But, when we think back and look at history, small cells are simply repeating the enterprise evolution cycle of the LAN and Wi-Fi. Three critical technology transitions in enterprise are being paralleled by in-building mobile technology:

  • 10Base2/10Base5 to10BaseT LAN
  • Shared Ethernet to Switched Ethernet
  • Standalone Wi-Fi “Fat AP” to Controller Based Wi-Fi “Thin AP”

Why were these evolution cycles and transitions important?

10Base2/10Base5 to10BaseT LAN
10BaseT was ratified in 1990 and, along with widespread adoption of copper/fiber-optic structured cabling (EIA/TIA 568a/b), enabled enterprise IT to deploy LANs beyond a departmental level. Prior to the emergence of 10BaseT, LAN’s based on 10Base2/5 were departmentally owned/operated. They were hand crafted by specialists using expensive components and coaxial cabling. Additionally, enterprise system availability standards could not be achieved on LAN’s prior to 10BaseT. 10BaseT was the core driver that enabled networks to be deployed at-scale inside enterprises as a common transport layer for departmental and mainframe computing on a low cost, repeatable commodity infrastructure. The other component to success was the 10BaseT LAN’s technology acquisition, and installation costs being far lower than10Base2/5. In addition to rapid commoditization of the active electronic systems, a much larger pool of capable labor (telephone cable installers) to wire buildings created fierce competition.

Shared Ethernet to Switched Ethernet
Kalpana pioneered Ethernet switching in 1989. The concept of switching MAC layer packets enabled Ethernet to radically scale up, and was key to the gradual extinction of competing LAN technologies. Shared Ethernet was constructed such that every computer shared access to the cable. This, as you would expect, created contention issues for access to the network and manifested as very slow performance on large or busy networks. Ethernet switching broke networks into smaller pieces where only the computers on a segment of the switch would contend for access. In the world of today, shared Ethernet is not seen in enterprises, every network port is switched, and our computers are never prevented from transmitting because of another host on the same network.

Standalone Wi-Fi “Fat AP” to Controller Based Wi-Fi “Thin AP”
In the 2001-2002 timeframe, a number of entrepreneurs founded startups (Airespace, Aruba Networks, Trapeze Networks) targeted at resolving the scaling problems in Wi-Fi that enterprise customers were experiencing. The leading edge AP’s of that generation were termed “Fat” in that they were assumed to be standalone devices that had to hold full intelligence locally. Since they were standalone, they did not understand how to cooperate with other AP’s in the environment and each had to be manually configured and managed as single entities. It was an epic nightmare, I was there. The controller architecture was brilliant for Wi-Fi as the “Thin” AP’s installed around the network received their common configuration from the controller and it completely orchestrated all interactions amongst the AP’s. In the world of today, standalone AP’s are relegated to residential, SOHO, and SMB applications where scaling and high performance/density needs are not a requirement.

Small Cell Repeats the Enterprise Evolution Cycle with remarkable parallels.

DAS vs Enterprise Small Cells
The DAS environment is similar to the 10Base2/5 networks of the past. Specialized engineering, installation, and technology along with costs that limit its application to larger venues or very high value enterprise customers. Enterprise small cells use commodity Ethernet for transport and install like access points such that the contractor that wires and deploys office buildings for Wi-Fi can now add small cells to their bag of tricks.

Macro-network to Macro-network/small cells
The notion of densification is conceptually similar to what Ethernet switching did for shared Ethernet cables. Instead of just a 2-mile radius shared 3G/LTE radio domain, the addition of small cells takes the load off the shared macro-network. If you visualize it like Ethernet switching, small cells create lots of little switched segments that unload the larger shared network of that traffic. Every small cell is like a switch port.

Femtocells to Enterprise Small Cells
The problems with placing multiple Femtocells in office and apartment buildings such that they conflict with each other is well known. It was inevitable that a system architecture would emerge to coordinate and operate a cloud of associated small cells inside a building. Why? The Femtocell pioneers encountered the same density problems that Fat Wi-Fi AP’s did in the late 90’s. While SpiderCloud is the first to create a purpose built indoor small cell controller based architecture that solves for the problem space that the Wi-Fi guys did 10 years ago, we certainly won’t be the last. But it is apparent that enterprise is not just a market segment but it requires a “plug and play” technology that is capable of supporting high density, high performance indoor needs.

The old adage of “history does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme” lines up nicely when we see the emergent small cells segmentation into Femtocell (home, SOHO, SMB) and enterprise small cells. And, it compares well with the evolution of Ethernet & Wi-Fi in the enterprise networking market. We are heading into an amazing time. Enjoy!

The important thing to remember is that “a new and more important role is emerging for mobile operators where enterprise mobility and value-added IP services is part of the ‘package.’ Mobile is the heartbeat of any organization, and wireless is the digital oxygen that our devices breathe at home and on the road.”

Small Cells are evolving with enterprises’ needs and transition from being wireless – to becoming mobile businesses.

– Art King, SpiderCloud Wireless, Director of Enterprise Services & Technologies

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