Network infrastructure refers to the hardware and software that enable network connectivity and communication between users, devices, apps, the internet, and more.
As the names imply, wired and wireless networks differ in how the user's end device connects to the overall network. In a wired network, data flows over cables. The cables connect to an interface card in an end device at one end and to an Ethernet port on the network switch or router at the other end.
In a wireless network, data flows over the air via radio waves. These signals travel from the end device to a wireless access point, which is connected to the network. This allows users to roam, untethered to wires or cables. That said, the wireless network still needs wired hardware components, like Ethernet switches, to support the wireless access points.
Many organizations are moving—or have moved—to a primarily wireless network infrastructure. This trend was underway even before the global health crisis, as businesses with a growing number of users found it easier to expand network access using wireless-enabled devices, instead of installing new cable connections.
The global health crisis set in motion another change in network infrastructure: the rise of the hybrid workplace. A combination of in-office and remote workers comprises the hybrid workforce. Workers can be located onsite or offsite, either all or part of the time. Wireless network infrastructure is essential to supporting the hybrid workplace environment so that workers can reliably and securely access the network anytime, anywhere, from any device.
The dramatic rise in the use and development of apps for collaboration and communication also demands a wider embrace of wireless network infrastructure. Wireless access to the internet and to key applications and resources helps all employees in any workplace—hybrid or traditional—stay productive.
The following are examples of the basic components found in wireless network infrastructure:
Wireless devices can use access points to connect to a wired network. It is easier to install access points within a wired network to connect all the computers or devices than to create connections using wires and cables.
Wireless access points are essential to enable wireless network connectivity. The type of access point an organization uses will depend on its specific needs. For example:
Wi-Fi 6 is the next generation of the Wi-Fi standard. Wi-Fi 6 enables enterprises and service providers to support new and emerging applications on the same wireless infrastructure, while delivering a higher grade of service to older applications. The shift to Wi-Fi 6 sets the stage for new business models and increased Wi-Fi adoption. Some organizations are already using Wi-Fi 6 access points.
Switches are key building blocks for networks. When there are too many devices—such as computers, access points, printers, and servers—on the same network, traffic on the network becomes congested and the flow of data slows. Switches help solve these issues by breaking the overall network into smaller groups so that local traffic in one area doesn't affect local traffic in another area.
The only wireless part of a wireless network is the connection from the end device to the nearest access point. Beyond that, all data flows through Ethernet cables and switches to connect to the rest of the network.
As the number of wireless devices grows and the amount of data generated by the applications used on those devices increases, bandwidth to support the access points must increase. The Wi-Fi 6 standard quadrupled the bandwidth per access point.
When upgrading access points, organizations should consider upgrading their Ethernet switches and make sure the switches can support the increased traffic.
Switches group devices into separate networks. Routers and edge routing platforms provide the connections between networks.
Routers and edge platforms are deployed to connect campus and branch locations and colocation facilities to the internet and public cloud. These routing devices can provide various connectivity options such as multiprotocol label switching (MPLS) lines, internet options such as broadband and cellular, as well as software-defined cloud interconnect (SDCI) links.
Routers and edge routing platforms make decisions about the most optimal path to achieving a high application quality of experience from source to destination. These devices can also play an important role in applying security policies to data, so that traffic only goes where it is permitted and is inspected for malicious threats.
A wireless router, or Wi-Fi router, combines the functions of a router and a wireless access point. Wireless routers are commonly used in smaller branch and home office networks, so workers in those locations can connect to the internet and the company network from one device in a small form factor.
A cellular gateway can enable a router or edge platform to use 4G and 5G cellular links for WAN or wireless WAN connectivity. Cellular gateways plug into the router or edge platform Ethernet port. These gateways can provide multigigabit connections. Sometimes, they can be managed in a cloud console if there is a compatible SD-WAN product.
The wireless network infrastructure of an enterprise includes a wireless LAN (WLAN) controller. A WLAN architecture enables users in the enterprise to maintain their network connection while moving around the wireless coverage area, like in an office. The WLAN controller manages the access points that allow wireless devices to connect to the company's network.