Step Up to Wireless Networking

By Lauren Simonds

May 28, 2004

Whether you're thinking about installing your own wireless network or hiring a third-party company to handle all the technical details, it takes a plan to make wireless networking a reality.

You've no doubt heard a lot of hype about wireless networking (perhaps even among these esteemed Web pages), and you may wonder whether there's any real business advantage to going wireless, or if it's just the cool technology talking. The definitive answer is: it depends. The most important part of a wireless network is the time you spend upfront thinking about what your company's work and networking needs are, and whether going wireless will help you meet those needs.

Wireless offers real installation savings over having to physically hardwire an Ethernet network. So if you expand frequently, or are planning a network expansion, wireless can save you money. If your work force requires mobility — sales people on the road, collaborative work within the office — then a wireless network can improve work productivity.

Don't just take my word for it, though. According to America Marketing Institute, SMBs with wireless networks report seeing benefits in higher productivity, application flexibility and worker satisfaction, and that the number of SMBs using wireless LANS will increase by 28 percent in 2004.

It Takes a Village
Once you've decided that a wireless network makes sense for your company, the real planning begins. Depending on your particular situation — whether you have an in-house IT resource, your budget, and the size of your network — you may want to hire a consultant or a company to advise you and/or install your new network. While there are many companies — both large and small — that specialize in Wi-Fi networks, we recently talked with HP about what it offers small business owners, and the depth of its program surprised us.

HP basically offers a one-stop-shop networking experience — with the same solutions they provide the top ten companies — geared to small business. Richard Stone, HP's wireless mobility manager refers to what he calls the Three C's: Cost, Complexity and Compromise. "We don't dumb down our products based on a company's size, tech savvy or budget," says Stone. Where the small business compromises is on customization — no company logos or matching of company style guides on software interfaces — but there is no compromise to security or other business processes."

Benefits, Benefits, Benefits
According to Stone, wireless networks offer small businesses a competitive edge over larger companies. "They're more maneuverable and can launch new programs much faster than the big guys," he says. "Imagine a sales scenario involving a big biz sales rep and a small biz rep with wireless access to sales force automation. It might take the big biz rep 24 hours to order the client's widgets, but the small biz rep can do it immediately. Wireless access provides a significant time advantage." Wireless capability also helps keep your business' process chain intact. Typically, if one person in any part of that chain leaves the office, everything comes to a standstill until that person gets back on the network. But with wireless networking, your people an always stay connected and your business process keeps chugging along.

In terms of cash-money savings, Stone says that expanding a wireless network is 30 percent cheaper than "pulling copper wire" for a standard Ethernet network.

Planning Partners
HP's goal is to be a trusted advisor to small businesses by providing total solutions for wireless (and wired) network needs. That includes the initial planning, installation and maintenance. The good news is that customers can decide exactly what they need — bits and pieces or the whole program.

HP's offers its direct services to companies with 500 employees and up, while trained and specially qualified partners provide the services for companies with 499 or fewer employees. Regardless of whom you pick to install your wireless system, HP recommends the following steps to ensure the project goes as planned.

Step 1
Understand It: Learn as much as you can about the benefits of wireless and how it can help your business save money and be more productive. Wireless networking is a flexible and affordable alternative that lets you easily reconfigure your office space as your company grows and changes.

Step 2
Plan It: Assess the anticipated return on investment and investigate what it will take to integrate wireless technologies with your existing infrastructure. Review the advantages and consider the benefits to your organization.

  • Reduced installation cost: It may be significantly less expensive to install wireless access points compared to wiring your office with Ethernet capabilities.
  • Flexibility: If you regularly expand or reorganize your office, or need to accommodate a variety of network configurations, the rapid transition time from one configuration to other that wireless provides can help reduce your network down time. In addition, you won't incur the costs associated with physically rewiring office space.
  • Convenient information access: Wireless lets you extend access to key information to anyone on your staff, from anywhere in the office, even when they aren't physically connected to your wired LAN connection.
  • Access the integration points: Evaluate your current and future networking needs. How is your current networking infrastructure configured? How many workstations, offices, and conference rooms are connected to the network? How many aren't but need to be connected? How many people use the computers and communications systems in your company now? Does your staff conduct business at locations away from their primary work area? What kind of equipment does your staff use? Are they mobile with notebook computers and PDAs or do the majority of your workers use desktop systems? Do those who would benefit most from wireless, mobile access already use notebooks?
  • Formulate a plan: The equipment you buy and the way you configure your wireless network will be driven by your business needs, so it's important you have a clear plan before you spend any money on equipment or other resources.

Step 3:
Do It: Once you have a business plan in place that defines how you want to add wireless networking capabilities to your office, you can get down to the business of actually setting up your wireless network. It's easier than you might think. Start by understanding the equipment involved in a wireless network. Wireless Local Area Network (WLAN) equipment consists of two main components:

  • A wireless client: Any device capable of communicating over a wireless LAN e.g. notebook, printer or handheld.
  • An access point: Access points act as the data go-between for your wireless clients and the hardwired network. The access point is generally about the size of a book and contains a radio transceiver, communications and encryption software, and an Ethernet port for a cable connection to the wired LAN.

Other Considerations:

  • Identify the equipment you want to buy, such as wireless notebooks, access points, wireless LAN adapters and wireless cards.
  • Determine how many people have to access the network. This will help you decide how many access points you need.
  • Plan the location of your wired LAN to maximize the range of the access points.
  • Configure your wireless devices to work with your network.
  • Establishing a procedure to manage your wireless LAN.
  • Test the installation before it goes live.

Step 4
Use it: Implement wireless-specific security measures to ensure that your wireless communications are secure. Wireless solutions use three primary security measures:

  • MAC (media access control) addressing — Restricts network access by unauthorized devices by assigning each network card a unique hardware identification number. Make certain that the network access point you purchase supports MAC.
  • WEP encryption — A complicated software algorithm that scrambles data as it is sent and unscrambles it as soon as it is received. Make sure that you can upgrade your wireless cards as new wireless access standards emerge.
  • Traditional VPN (Virtual Private Network) A secure way for authorized people outside of your system to access your network. Organizations that use remote access almost always use VPN, and combined with the aforementioned security measures, it makes your wireless network extremely secure.

Step 5
Support: If you find that you need additional help or support, or are planning a larger-scale implementation, HP offers access to mobility and wireless experts via live chat or via phone at 1-800-888-0262. HP also has an extensive team of partners that can help you understand your options, configure your network, set up your systems and get you up and running quickly and efficiently. For more information you can visit HP's mobile and wireless solution center.

Lauren Simonds is the managing editor of smallbusinesscomputing.com

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