Opinion: Are You Ready for the All Wireless Workplace?

By Jeff Vance

August 06, 2008

If you’re not, at least for now, CIOUpdate columnist Jeff Vance says there really isn’t any reason you need to be.

With 802.11n offering performance and security on par with cabled Ethernet, why wouldn’t you embrace wireless? This, anyway, is the vision of WLAN equipment vendors. The most telling slogan is Motorola’s: “Wireless by default, wired by exception.” The truth, though, is this all-wireless vision takes some parsing.

All-wireless is coming—if you’re talking about the end-user perspective. No one is proposing wireless data centers. Ethernet to the desktop isn’t dead yet, especially since there’s no reason to tear out wiring already in place. Yet, as far as new equipment goes, it’s slowly being phased out.

“There’s no reason that client devices shouldn’t be wireless,” said Craig Mathias, a principal at Farpoint Group, a wireless advisory firm. “You can argue that even a good part of LAN infrastructure will be wireless eventually, especially with mesh architectures, but one thing that Wi-Fi still doesn’t achieve is Gigabit-speed throughput.”

Which means wires are here to stay, albeit in a pared back roll. If you need those thick pipes for specialized applications, such as video editing or CAD, you’ll still be running cable for a long time to come. Even things like continuous backup and disaster recovery would overwhelm Wi-Fi, but those IT-specific tasks should have little bearing on the typical end user.

Is 802.11n even a standard yet?

Technically, no. 802.11n is still not ratified by the IEEE, although draft four was passed in May and most of the work left to do is fairly obscure, such as dynamic frequency selection. If you’re confused, you’re not alone, especially since 802.11n products have been shipping for some time now. Officially, those are pre-standard products, but they’ve been approved by the Wi-Fi Alliance, which stepped in to speed up the process.

Wi-Fi Alliance approval means these products have reached a de facto standards threshold. They must interoperate, and they’ll be easily upgraded as the official IEEE standard evolves.

Despite a history of 802.11 standards in-fighting, most CIOs shouldn’t worry too much about the nitty gritty details of 802.11n. “The real question, especially in tough economic times is, ‘Why do it?’” said Chris Roeckl, VP of Marketing for AirMagnet, a provider of WLAN assurance tools. “The answer will surprise most people. If you’re talking about investing in new equipment, wireless is much more cost effective than wiring a new desktop.”

An Aberdeen study from last summer bears this out. The study found that adding users to a wired infrastructure costs about four times as much as adding them via wireless. Wireless deployments also take less time, while, counter-intuitively, triggering far fewer calls to help desks.

Security and throughput

Let’s face it 802.11 has a checkered past within the enterprise. First, there was WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy). Then there were the various 802.11 flavors that never quite interoperated as well as they were supposed to. Then there were backwards compatibility issues, with .11b clients killing .11g throughput. Then there were the competing infrastructure philosophies on how to control and manage WLANs; with people spending vast amounts of time and energy debating the merits of switches vs. gateways vs. whatever other architecture vendors dreamed up.

No wonder plenty of CIOs (and even whole industries) are wary of wireless. “Today, when we get called into financial organizations, it’s to make sure there is no wireless,” Roeckl said. However, 802.11n is light years beyond its troubled .11a/b/g predecessors. “802.11n brings two fundamental shifts. First, it’s safe enough. Second, it’s fast enough.”

Compared to wired infrastructure, Roeckl argues that 802.11n is actually more secure than a wired environment. Encryption schemes like WPA (Wi-Fi Protected Access) are extremely advanced; rogue AP detection comes standard with most enterprise WLAN management suites; and VPNs add another layer of protection. Ethernet, by contrast, doesn’t have these protections at the transport layer. (Since Ethernet is physically contained within buildings, you could argue that the transport-layer protections are things like security desks and identification badges.)

As far as performance, 802.11n delivers the throughput to satisfy everything but the most extreme, and rare, bandwidth-hogging applications. Meanwhile, even those enterprises with 802.11a or .11g are generally satisfied with throughput. This returns us then to the original question posed by this article: Are you ready for the all-wireless workplace? The answer? Not quite yet.

“There’s still work to do,” Farpoint Group’s Mathias said, “but it’s not a lot of work. In three to five years, you’ll see most of the major issues figured out.”

The problems aren’t trivial, though. They range from the need to support existing investments in legacy wired and wireless infrastructures to authentication issues to device control. All of these issues can be solved, but they take careful planning, and often require complementary technologies. For instance, in many industries auditors require that WLANs have separate monitoring networks installed as an overlay.

“The vendors hyping 802.11n are the ones coming to us with lists of network analysis questions,” said Jay Botelho, director of Product Management at WildPackets, a provider of network analysis solutions. In the near-term most 802.11n adoption will show up at the fringes of the enterprise. 802.11n will find its way into branch offices, or it will extend existing LANs into places that have no current coverage.

802.11n will also catch on in certain verticals like health care and education, but it will take longer to penetrate the horizontal, generic enterprise, which will act with more caution, waiting to adopt 802.11n as part of hardware upgrade cycles.

“For large enterprises, 802.11n represents an investment they aren’t ready for,” Botelho said. “They’re looking at 802.11n. They’re interested, but in tough economic times, they’re not ready to jump.”

Article courtesy of CIOUpdate.com.



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