WLAN Serves Small Business Well

By David Haskin

August 20, 2003

So you think WLANs are only for homes or large enterprises? Here's one small business that is finding it profitable to deploy a WLAN.

Wireless local area networks (WLANs) have enjoyed major inroads with home networks and are fast becoming common in enterprises. But what about small businesses with, say, 150 or 200 employees?

If you think there's not much WLAN action in that venue, you haven't met Rob Shoenfelt, CIO of Celina Insurance Group, a 160 employee property and casualty insurer based in Celina, Ohio. While the insurance industry isn't known for technical innovation, Shoenfelt is bullish on WLANs.

He is spearheading deployment in his company's headquarters and his staff helps employees set up wireless networks at home. They also help agents set up WLANs in their offices.

"We can easily cost-justify it," Shoenfelt said. "Wireless LANs absolutely can work for a small business."

Easy Deployment, Eager Users

Celina's headquarters deployment was done simply and quickly without niceties such as a formal site survey, Shoenfelt said.

"It took a week, maybe two using one guy working part time," he said. "When it came to placing the access points, our site survey was somebody walking around with a laptop saying, 'It's good here, but not much signal there.'" In the end, his group installed six access points throughout the headquarters building, he said.

Nor did he spent much time worrying about security.

"Our greatest security is that we're in Celina, Ohio," he said laughing. "It's a huge security advantage. There aren't a lot of people driving by trying to crack into wireless networks." He said the network does employ Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP) for encryption.

Currently, about 30 employees use the wireless LAN at work and Shoenfelt expects it to level off at no more than 50. "The only problem we're having is the number of people who want it," he said. "They may have a laptop but we have to tell them that, if you don't go to a lot of meetings, too bad. You have to cost justify it. It can't just be a status thing."

However, Shoenfelt said it is worth the effort by IT personnel to help key employees set up home wireless networks. That makes the employees more productive because they can more easily work from home and balance work with their family, he said.

"I'm a good example," he said. "We have cable access, but my kid is on it all night, so the chances of me getting on [our home computer] are pretty slim. So I set up a (wireless) router and now I can use the cable connection any time."

Helping set up home WLANs provided the only significant technical difficulty in the deployment, he said. That difficulty had to do with IP addresses.

"When we started out, we hardcoded default IP addresses," he said. "Then, everybody got home and they wanted to use the default IP address and there were conflicts -- it didn't always work."

Specifically, he used IP addresses in the 192.168.0.x range. Now, he suggests employees use those addresses at home while IT personnel dole out addresses in another sequence for office use.

Worth the Investment

Shoenfelt acknowledged that he probably won't run a formal return-on-investment study on the WLAN. But he said he had no doubt it is paying off. For one thing, his is a small company competing against many larger firms. Because WLANs help improve productivity, he noted, his company is better able to compete.

"For instance, my life is significantly easier," he said. "I have two offices and I work at home. Just a while ago, I was in my office downstairs and I just picked up my laptop and walked upstairs, put it on my other desk and was ready to go." Those types of efficiency improvements are spreading throughout the company, he added.

"Sales reps might come in once a month and, when they do, there's a lot less hassle," he said. "We don't have to worry where they sit. They can just come in and start working without going through headaches like trying to find the wire they used the last time they were in the office. People come in and get right to work.

"Plus, it's just easier to move around the office and stay in touch. I can be sitting in a meeting with the rest of the executives and, if somebody has a question, I have my laptop right there and I can use instant messaging (the company uses Lotus Sametime instant messaging) and get an answer right away."

Still, the WLAN won't ever be universally used, Shoenfelt said.

"We'll stick with wires where it makes sense," he said. "If you're moving a lot of data, it doesn't make sense to use wireless. If you don't move around much or go to many meetings, it doesn't make sense.

He noted that his IT shop provides support for the company's 500 agents and they are strongly urging many of the agents to switch to WLANs.

"A lot of the agents are up-and-comers," Shoenfelt said. "When the move into a new office, we tell them, 'why use wires?' That's expensive and this won't be your last office. So use wireless and, when you move, just take the network with you."

Looking Ahead

So far, the WLAN deployment has been simple and inexpensive, Shoenfelt said. But he's looking ahead at possible changes down the road.

He said, for instance, that the slower speeds of the WLAN compared to the wired LAN aren't a problem most of the time. However, there are some instances, such as the company's data warehousing application, in which lots of data flows back and forth. As a result, he will consider switching to faster 802.11g equipment at some point.

In the meantime, Shoenfelt believes that the WLAN is an appropriate tool for small businesses.

"We're just a little guy competing against the big boys," he said. "WLANs really do work for small businesses. It really helps us."

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