Transforming next-gen enterprise Wi-Fi networks with wireless

When you think of enterprise Wi-Fi, what comes to mind is an office with many laptops, smartphones, and other devices all seamlessly connecting over wireless. However, the irony is that it takes lots of cabling and rooms full of wired routers and switches to make that happen. But a startup in the Bay area called Airvine is set to change all that through its high-performance multi-gigabit wireless backhaul system. This should simplify and hasten deployments and reduce costs while making networks more flexible, be it new builds or augmenting existing networks. 

Enterprise connectivity in need of upgrades

After a long period of “working from home,” when workers started slowly returning to their offices, they quickly realized that their office’s Wi-Fi was too slow, unable to handle the load of video meetings and online real-time collaboration. A recent CCS Insight study showed that unreliable Wi-Fi in offices could hamper hybrid/remote work strategies and cause employee frustration. This realization has started an upgrade cycle of enterprise networks, utilizing high-performance WiFi6/e and, very soon, WiFi7 technologies.

By definition, enterprise network upgrades include futureproofing. That means going beyond today’s typical dimensioning of 10s of Mbps per user to gigabit and even multi-gigabit speeds. The networks must support increased video and other data traffic as well as latency-sensitive applications such as XR and metaverse. 

Such upgrades don’t simply mean changing the old Access Points (APs). Instead, it includes replacing years-old Fast Ethernet or Gigabit Ethernet cabling, as well as bringing in new routers and switches. All of that requires millions of dollars of investment, months of work, and a considerable amount of business interruption.

Airvine is looking to make enterprise Wi-Fi networks truly wireless

Upgrade cycles offer the perfect opportunity to reevaluate traditional norms and adopt modern, more efficient approaches. That’s precisely what Airvine is trying to do.

Airvine’s solution, in a nutshell, involves backhauling all the APs, IoT gateways, and wired devices with wireless links and local switches. That eliminates most cabling and the strenuous job of hauling all traffic to centralized switching rooms.

At the heart of Airvine’s solution are WaveTunnel nodes. Each node contains a pair of high-performance, high throughput, specially engineered 60 GHz radios, a Layer2/3 switch, and Airvine’s secret sauce. One node can connect up to four APs through onboard ethernet ports. 

Airvine targets indoor deployments, such as large office buildings, event venues, hospitals, hotels, etc. In a typical deployment, several nodes are spread across the building, connected through 60 GHz unlicensed spectrum in a Sonnet-like ring architecture. This ring becomes the common backhaul for all the APs, IoT gateways, and others. Currently, the 60 GHz band has up to 14 GHz of available spectrum, enough to provide the capacity needed for any enterprise deployment. 

According to its CEO, Vivek Raghavan, the WaveTunnel system brings four distinct innovations to make all this possible. 

Radios – The most significant innovation lies in the 60 GHz radios and antennas. This spectrum typically requires a line-of-site connection for proper operation. Airvine has burnt lots of midnight oil to break this paradigm and offer a 60GHz solution that penetrates through obstructions (NLOS -Non-Line of Site (NLOS). Currently, their technology can connect through drywalls, glass, and wood – materials usually found in indoor office construction. They have achieved this by implementing a 256-element antenna array with highly suppressed sidelobes, creating a very sharp main beam. This array offers very high gain, providing enough link margin to compensate for the penetration loss of walls. The array is only 8cm x 8cm in size and is a key reason for WaveTunnel’s small form factor. The radios also have beamforming and beam steering for easy alignment. 

The radios use IEEE 802.11ad/ay standard air interface. You might remember that a few years ago, Qualcomm and Intel enthusiastically marketed the 60 GHz spectrum and these standards for mobile communications. In addition, Facebook (Meta) uses this spectrum for its Terragraph project for backhauling outdoor Wi-Fi APs serving wireless broadband to homes and businesses. Although none of those efforts got much market traction, they created a healthy ecosystem of chipsets and component providers. Airvine is smartly leveraging this spectrum for more realistic use cases and the mature ecosystem to develop radios and antenna arrays more cost-effectively.

Raghavan mentioned that Airvine has/applied for three broad system design patents covering their radio innovations, which should hopefully protect them from copycats. 

Ring architecture – The nodes are connected in a Sonnet-like ring architecture, meaning the network is self-healing and resilient to any link failures. The architecture also optimizes the latency over the entire WaveTunnel network ensuring support for latency-sensitive applications. In conventional wired deployments, APs are connected through a cascade of switches, where the latency of the APs farther from the router/switch might be much higher than the closer ones. 

Security – The WaveTunnel system employs several measures from the radio layer up through layer 2 to ensure networks are as secure as their cable counterpart. With WaveTunnel, users get physical and virtual traffic segmentation, be it IT (Informational) or OT (Operational- IoT).

Fast, Plug-and-play, flexible deployments and management – As one can imagine, deployment of these nodes is far quicker than cabling. Adding new APs or changing the network configuration is very simple and fast. The system is configured and managed through a smartphone app without requiring expensive skilled labor. Even the finicky 60 GHz radios can be easily aligned using beamforming and beam steering capabilities. 

Based on their initial studies, Raghavan mentioned that Airvine deployments could be up to 5x lower in cost compared to traditional cabling, depending on the type and size of deployments. That seems impressive. However, I haven’t had a chance to look at these studies in detail, maybe for my follow-up article!

Closing thoughts 

Airvine seems to have an exciting solution to modernize Enterprise Wi-Fi. Although using wireless for backhauling wireless is a simple idea, the various novel innovations that Airvine brings make it a remarkable end-to-end backhaul system. That could also offer some differentiation if existing players providing outdoor 60 GHz backhaul products today decide to enter the indoor market. 

The claimed 5x savings are very attractive, and any Enterprise will definitely take a serious look at Airvine’s solution. This seems like a no-brainer for new network builds. But because of WaveTunnel’s plug-and-play approach and APIs to integrate into existing network management systems, it is ideal for augmenting existing networks with cabled backhaul. Enterprises could also take a phased approach. For example, they could start with the WateTunnel system in high-traffic areas or whenever they are deploying the latest WiFi6/e or WiFi7  APs, and transition the entire network based on the capacity needs, budget, usage pattern, and other considerations.

As of May 2022, WaveTunnel was shipped to over 40 prospective partners and end customers. That is noteworthy, considering the product is yet to be commercially available (expected late Q4 of this year). Airvine also recently closed Series A funding, raising $10 Million, led by Crosslink Capital. That should give some confidence to players looking to consider Airvine.

In summary, Airvine’s solution seems promising. Enterprise network players value its performance, savings, simplicity, fast deployment, and flexibility. I look forward to its commercial launch and will probably do a more in-depth study of some of the claims.  

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