What Is an Access Point in Networking?
An access point (AP) is a term used for a network device that bridges wired and wireless networks. Consumer APs are often called a “wireless routers” because they typically also serve as both internet routers and firewalls. Commercial and industrial APs tend towards minimal network routing capabilities and rarely have firewalls.
Most APs connect wireless networks using the Wi-Fi standard; however, modern commercial and industrial APs increasingly offer support for the Bluetooth and Thread wireless standards, as well. This allows commercial and industrial APs to support both human-centric and Internet of Things (IoT) devices.
The differences between consumer APs and commercial or industrial APs is easily explained by network scale. A consumer AP is typically designed to be the only piece of network infrastructure in a home. It must connect the home network to the internet, provide basic information security defenses, and support perhaps a dozen networking devices.
Commercial and industrial APs, in contrast, typically need to cover an area physically larger than can be served by a single AP, and regularly support dozens or even hundreds of wireless clients simultaneously. Commercial and industrial APs serve primarily to allow wireless devices to access the organization’s wired network where advanced network services, such as information security and internet routing, are handled by other devices.
What Problems Does an Access Point Solve?
At its most basic, the purpose of an AP is to provide network access to wireless devices. This is, however, a bit like saying “the purpose of a truck is to move things.” APs have been around for more than 25 years. In that time their functionality has matured as they have adapted to evolving use cases. The result is that devices one could reasonably call APs range in price from less than one hundred US dollars to several thousand US dollars per AP.
Modern APs are not just devices that solve the problem of how to connect wireless devices to a wired network. Modern APs need to securely connect wireless devices to a wired network, and do so for deployments ranging from single APs with a handful of clients to multi-national deployments of thousands of APs serving millions of wireless clients.
Consumer APs are often managed by Internet Service Providers (ISPs), while commercial and industrial APs are typically managed by an organization’s IT department. How these APs are managed, the specific software and networking features that are present on the AP, as well as the number and standards of wireless protocols that the AP supports, all play a role in determining the hardware performance required by the AP.
Access points serve in many roles. Consumer APs typically are responsible for connecting an individual household to the internet. Commercial APs are usually responsible for connecting both large numbers of individuals, as well as an ever-increasing number of IoT devices to the internet. Advanced consumer and industrial APs can even be used to track the location of wireless devices, such as Bluetooth tags. Some APs bridge multiple wireless networks using different standards.
How Does an Access Point Work?
An AP consists of one or more radios, an onboard computer, and at least one wired network port. The AP’s onboard computer uses the radios to emit and listen for radio waves according to one or more public standards. This allows the AP to communicate with any other devices speaking the same standards on the same radio frequencies. The onboard computer then bridges that radio-based wireless network with one or more wired networks using the wired network ports.
Most consumer APs are designed to be the only physical piece of network infrastructure in a home. These are typically provided by ISPs to their customers and are optimized for price. Consumer APs have many features but cannot support either significant network throughput or large numbers of simultaneous devices.
Commercial and industrial APs take a different approach, typically optimizing for scale and network security. Optimizing for scale means putting more antennas into an AP so that it can support either more wireless clients or the same number of clients at a higher average throughput. Supporting more antennas requires either a more complex radio, multiple radios, or both. Typically, the central processing unit (CPU) of an AP that’s optimized for scale will also be significantly more powerful than what is used in a typical consumer AP.
The other dimension that commercial and industrial APs optimize for is network security. Commercial and industrial networks tend to be segmented, placing information security boundaries between different groups of networked devices. Increasingly, commercial and industrial APs include AI (artificial intelligence) capabilities that detect network abnormalities in order to make troubleshooting and information security tasks easier for administrators.
Modern APs can have many radios operating on different frequencies. The Wi-Fi wireless standard allows for operation in the 2.4Ghz, 5Ghz, and 6Ghz bands. Bluetooth uses 2.4Ghz, as do several of the IoT standards, such as Thread and Zigbee.
Nearly every AP supports the Wi-Fi wireless standard, and many commercial and industrial APs now support Bluetooth as well. Support for other IoT wireless standards is more rare but is expected to increase dramatically starting in 2023 due to widespread industry support for the Matter 2.0 standard, and the associated Thread IoT wireless standard.
As smart devices become more common in homes and businesses, the role of the AP is evolving beyond simply connecting laptops and smartphones to the network. APs are increasingly about local radio frequency management, providing the ability to identify, connect to, and securely interact with whatever it is around you that wants to talk wireless to something else. Managing all of that requires increasingly powerful onboard computers along with equally sophisticated software.
Juniper Implementation of Access Networks
Juniper Networks has built a robust portfolio of open and intelligent Access Points (APs) that are capable of scaling to meet any enterprise, campus, or service provider need. All Juniper APs support the Wi-Fi and Bluetooth wireless standards. Some models also have IoT support.
Additional technologies and software that come with a Juniper Access Point include:
Some Juniper APs use triple-band radios to support hundreds of wireless clients on in the 2.4GHz, 5GHz, and/or 6GHz frequency bands. In most scenarios a Wi-Fi client will connect to an AP only on one wireless band at a time; however, some Juniper APs include a fourth radio specifically to support wireless clients that use simultaneous tri-band communication.
Juniper Mist Edge
Juniper Mist™ Edge extends our microservices architecture to the campus, bringing agility and scale while enabling new applications at the edge. The Juniper Mist Edge uses the Juniper Mist Cloud and its distributed software architecture for scalable and resilient operations, management, troubleshooting, and analytics — all without the need for legacy wireless controllers.
Juniper Mist AI
Juniper Mist AI uses a combination of artificial intelligence, machine learning, and data science techniques to optimize user experiences and simplify operations across the wireless access, wired access, and SD-WAN domains.
Data is ingested from numerous sources, including Juniper Mist Access Points, Switches, Session Smart™ Routers, and Firewalls for end-to-end insight into user experiences. These devices work in concert with Mist AI to optimize user experiences from client to cloud, including automated event correlation, root cause identification, Self-Driving Network™ operations, network assurance, proactive anomaly detection, and more.
Marvis Virtual Network Assistant
The Marvis™ Virtual Network Assistant uses Mist AI to transform how IT teams interact and engage with enterprise networks. With natural language processing (NLP), a Conversational Assistant, prescriptive actions, Self-Driving Network™ operations, and integrated help desk functions, it streamlines operations and optimizes user experiences from client to cloud across wireless access, wired access, and SD-WAN domains.
- Delivers actionable recommendations to proactively fix an issue before users know it exists
- Conversational Assistant uses natural language to understand user intent
- Marvis software client for Android and Windows displays a client-level view of the network created by capturing events directly from end-user devices
- Validated Mist AI-driven support decreases user-generated tickets by up to 90 percent
- Provides real-time insights and simplified troubleshooting at the client, device, and site levels for improved service quality
Additionally, Gartner named Juniper Networks furthest in Vision and highest in Execution in the Gartner® Magic Quadrant™ for Enterprise Wired and Wireless LAN Infrastructure because of our dense line of technologies that support wired and wireless access network deployments.