There was big news this week as rumors spread that a major company was discontinuing a well known feature. That’s right, Apple has stated that iTunes will be deprecated and discontinued. Slightly behind that was the news that Fortinet will not be supporting Virtual Cell functionality on our Wi-Fi 6 and later APs. This wasn’t an easy decision for us, and not one that Fortinet took lightly.
Fortinet is very much a technology company. Innovation is in our DNA, and we’ve got entire walls here in HQ dedicated to highlighting all the work we put into our patents:
The innovation Fortinet saw in Virtual Cell was one of the items that made the acquisition of this technology platform attractive several years ago because it solved real world problems we were seeing at customer sites.
Moving away from a feature that’s historically been significant can be painful, but wireless in general has changed. I’ve been in the wireless industry since the Wi-Fi Alliance was still called WECA. At that time, it really was a wild west environment. You never knew what a client might do. Some of them had such lousy roaming algorithms that they would lose their minds any time they reached the edge of an AP's coverage area, sometimes even going into reboot cycles. There was a lot of insightful brilliance at the time to ask the question: What if we made it such that the client never roams? Executing on that took a level of ingenuity that made the Virtual Cell feature and debate around it so fascinating in the industry.
Over time, Wi-Fi went from a small niche technology to a daily part of our lives. As part of that expansion, a number of things changed. For one, the IEEE didn’t stand still, they kept improving the standard. IEEE802.11r, the Fast Roaming standard, made significant improvements in the downtime during a graceful roam. [Note that it didn’t necessarily improve poor roaming algorithms.] This can work in coordination with mechanisms such as the Neighbor Report in 802.11k which provides client devices with additional information about nearby roaming options. And now we have 802.11ax, which adds mechanisms such as BSS Coloring which improves efficiency and re-use of spectrum for adjacent cells (interestingly this is a problem that at the time, the innovators at Meru solved for Virtual Cell to work). But it’s not just the standards that have changed and grown many (not all, but many) devices got better at roaming. I haven’t seen a device completely lock up over a roaming decision in many years.
Which brings us back to the innovation that Fortinet loves. We are constantly doing more of it, much more of it. Moving on from Virtual Cell also allows us to re-focus and look for new and interesting ways to improve wireless. It allows us to look at continually pushing the boundaries of securing the traffic as well as the connectivity. It’s time for us to ask this generation’s version of “what if the client never roams?” in fact, I strongly suspect our engineers have already asked it and are eagerly working on the answer.