Independent networks

On the left is an independent BSS (IBSS). Stations in an IBSS communicate directly with each other and thus must be within direct communication range. The smallest possible 802.11 network is an IBSS with two stations. Typically, IBSSs are composed of a small number of stations set up for a specific purpose and for a short period of time. One common use is to create a short-lived network to support a single meeting in a conference room. As the meeting begins, the participants create an IBSS to share data. When the meeting ends, the IBSS is dissolved.121 Due to their short duration, small size, and focused purpose, IBSSs are sometimes referred to as ad hoc BSSs or ad hoc networks.

[2] IBSSs have found a similar use at LAN parties throughout the world. Infrastructure networks

On the right side of Figure 2-4 is an infrastructure BSS (never called an IBSS). Infrastructure networks are distinguished by the use of an access point. Access points are used for all communications in infrastructure networks, including communication between mobile nodes in the same service area. If one mobile station in an infrastructure BSS needs to communicate with a second mobile station, the communication must take two hops. First, the originating mobile station transfers the frame to the access point. Second, the access point transfers the frame to the destination station. With all communications relayed through an access point, the basic service area corresponding to an infrastructure BSS is defined by the points in which transmissions from the access point can be received. Although the multihop transmission takes more transmission capacity than a directed frame from the sender to the receiver, it has two major advantages:

• An infrastructure BSS is defined by the distance from the access point. All mobile stations are required to be within reach of the access point, but no restriction is placed on the distance between mobile stations themselves. Allowing direct communication between mobile stations would save transmission capacity but at the cost of increased physical layer complexity because mobile stations would need to maintain neighbor relationships with all other mobile stations within the service area.

• Access points in infrastructure networks are in a position to assist with stations attempting to save power. Access points can note when a station enters a power-saving mode and buffer frames for it. Battery-operated stations can turn the wireless transceiver off and power it up only to transmit and retrieve buffered frames from the access point.

In an infrastructure network, stations must associate with an access point to obtain network services. Association is the process by which mobile station joins an 802.11 network; it is logically equivalent to plugging in the network cable on an Ethernet. It is not a symmetric process. Mobile stations always initiate the association process, and access points may choose to grant or deny access based on the contents of an association request. Associations are also exclusive on the part of the mobile station: a mobile station can be associated with only one access point.131 The 802.11 standard places no limit on the number of mobile stations that an access point may serve. Implementation considerations may, of course, limit the number of mobile stations an access point may serve. In practice, however, the relatively low throughput of wireless networks is far more likely to limit the number of stations placed on a wireless network.

[3] One reviewer noted that a similar restriction was present in traditional Ethernet networks until the development of VLANs and specifically asked how long this restriction was likely to last. I am not intimately involved with the standardization work, so I cannot speak to the issue directly. I do, however, agree that it is an interesting question.

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