Corporate Wi-Fi Integration, Part 2

In Part 1, we discussed the factors that make an organization a good candidate for a Wi-Fi, the all-important site survey and some of the nuts & bolts of WLAN integration. In part 2 we chart Wi-Fi’s first steps toward enterprise adoption and take a look at some recognizable businesses that have since made the switch for the better.

Why make the switch?

Wireless isn’t just about the freedom to stay connected as you move around your work environment. It’s also about the freedom to connect your mobile notebook PC to the Internet from any room in your home or whenever you take it on the road.

Whether you’re considering supporting mobile Wi-Fi users abroad so they can use the technology while traveling or you’re installing a wireless system on your campus or corporate headquarters, having a proven and secure method for enterprise travelers to connect to high-speed Internet-based services is critical for doing business outside the confines of your office.

Clunky dial up connections and phone jacks have been the blight of notebook PC users for years. Now, with public WLAN’s (also known as Wi-Fi hotspots) popping up all over the place, connecting to the Web at an airport or a cafe can be as convenient as placing a call with a cell phone.

Wired network access still has its advantages. If you use a desktop computer or notebook PC and don’t need it when you travel across the country or into the next room, a wired connection is probably your best option. This does not mean that you don’t want to be thinking ahead.

Make no mistake, wireless is the wave of the future. Getting started now rather the later will only help to keep your company on the cutting edge, but also provides a means to effect increased productivity and communications among your work force.

But first, some history…

Page 2: How it all began

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How it all began

Three years ago, wireless LANs were prohibitively expensive, data transfer rates were a sluggish 2 Mbps and most products were proprietary in nature. As a result, wireless LANs were usually assigned “experimental” status or installed primarily in a warehouse environment for inventorying and parts tracking using systems such as Symbol and Intermec.

Fast forward to 2002: Wireless LANs are increasingly showing up in enterprise networks as extensions to Ethernet LANs, as bridges across networks and, in rare cases, as the core IP backbone.

Over the past few years, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) ratified the 802.11b wireless Ethernet standard. Currently this supports a data transfer rate of 11 Mbps. Interoperability of wireless LAN products from various vendors is now assured thanks to an independent organization called the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance. They brand compliant products as Wi-Fi. Costs are also down: Deploying an 802.11b wireless LAN costs a little less than half of what it did three years ago.

For the typical commercial organization, wireless network hardware is still just a tad pricier than wired Ethernet hubs and network interface cards (NICs). However cabling adds cost to wired networks, so depending on the situation, it may be more cost effective to go with wireless networking. Let’s not forget about the added mobility factor and ease of installation.

Dow Corning, a $2.7 billion maker of silicon sealant and personal care products, began using wireless LANs about three years ago when a vendor brought along an 802.11b product during a routine visit to Jim Marshall, who until recently worked as the company’s telecom manager. Impressed with the product’s simplicity and affordability, Marshall set up an Enterasys RoamAbout 802.11b wireless LAN to extend the company’s Ethernet to 185 IT workers in a building at company headquarters in Midland, Michigan.

Senior managers were so impressed by the pilot program that the company decided to go with 802.11b as the network backbone for a new corporate office in Belgium. Then came another wireless LAN for connecting a warehouse and office building, and yet another for an engineering group in Kentucky. The company plans to deploy wireless LANs in other buildings on the corporate campus. Clearly one can see that Dow Corning, like most companies that experimented with Wi-Fi, caught the wireless bug.

“One weekend we put up an access point and started handing out wireless cards to people. Now it’s prevalent throughout the organization,” says Marshall. Including the cable, electronics and labor to pull the cable, Dow spends about $300 for a wired port, compared with $180 for a wireless port at the time of installation. These products are even more affordable today.

“MW Manufacturers, a $200 million maker of windows, saved $5,000 on cabling costs alone by going with a wireless LAN for one of its manufacturing plants”, says Eric Martin, corporate director of IS and business systems. “MW saves money every time the production floor changes, which happens an average of three times a year, because the network doesn’t have to be rewired”, added Martin.

“We used to have wiring closets set up all over the shop floor so we could run a wire to a PC,” he says. “Then a few weeks later, we’d do it again.”

Page 3: Where it’s all going

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Where it’s all going

Going wireless used to be a complicated affair. It meant dealing with different wireless standards and all the resultant hardware and software. In 1999, the wireless industry settled on 802.11b (or WiFi) as the principal standard. This helped to drive prices down as demand surged.

Today, Wi-Fi networking equipment for large businesses is competitively priced with wired networks. It’s also easy to purchase, easy to setup, easy to use and easy to get support. And while 802.11b is the leading standard for wireless networking, there are still some other established and emerging standards. These offer some real benefits, but also a few limitations.

If you’re thinking of moving to wireless Internet access or networking, the biggest consideration is security. For now, Wi-Fi connections aren’t completely secure. Although there are security standards such as Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP), which encrypts data, it’s relatively easy for hackers to break. A more secure Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) standard is on its way, but until then, customers are encouraged to use virtual private networks (VPNs) or other 3rd party encryption applications such as Funk. Many large enterprise businesses have settled on this method since it is very cost effective and easy to use.

Dozens of vendors now offer standards-based wireless LAN products, compared with a handful of proprietary products three years ago. This has increased usability and lowered pricing. More than 50 companies, including Agere, Cisco, Enterasys, IBM, Intel and 3Com, are delivering Wi-Fi compliant 802.11b access points and NICs.

Home Depot was an early adopter of wireless LANs, and most of its 1,300 stores still use proprietary 2-Mbps wireless LANs to access inventory apps. But as Home Depot installs 802.11b products made by Symbol Technologies to new stores or upgrades other stores, it no longer has to stick to a proprietary NIC and can choose from a variety of Wi-Fi notebooks and adapters.

Home Depot is now paying about half of what it did five years ago, plus the new technology is much more efficient. “But the real take-away for the home improvement retailer is that its now much easier to scan products and then label merchandise as it sits on the shelf, rather than having to take merchandise to a fixed terminal to do the same. A notebook with a scanner connected to a wireless LAN lets employees price and label products on the spot thus making them more efficient,” says Dave Ellis, vice president of IS operations and networking at Home Depot.

For now, IT managers are moving forward on wireless LANs because deploying them is too cost-effective to ignore and the technology is reliable enough to handle most routine business applications. In trying to meet the growing demand for mobile enterprise applications, developers are confronted with all of the traditional problems of distributed computing, plus a host of new problems that are particular to the mobile environment.

Simply put, wireless is an innovative and affordable way to supplement rather than replace wired networks. Please check back for Part 3 where we discuss some system hang-ups and the top vendors in the industry today.

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