The WANs Have Landed: Wireless Technology: Embrace It or Beware
- By Philip E. Courtney
Wireless technology goes a long way in satisfying the needs of today’s employees, people who spend a lot of time working in teams that span functional, organizational and geographic boundaries. With ties severed to personal desktops, workers can access information from anywhere in the corporation – a conference room, the cafeteria or a remote branch office.
Wireless projects are prominent in the business-to-consumer arena today, especially in Europe, where Carl Zetie, Wireless Applications Analyst for the Giga Information Group, says it’s very close to mainstream.
"At a recent Giga conference in London, over 40 percent of attendees reported that they were using at least some wireless applications in production deployment in their business," he says. "The U.S. is probably about nine months behind. In a similar survey in December 2000, only 15 percent reported production deployments, but the large number of prototypes and trials in progress suggest rapid growth in 2001 and 2002."
While the technological development may be in the early stages, the wireless concept is a mature one. Usually part of a large, proprietary system in a manufacturing plant or a hospital, wireless LANs were expensive to build and suffered from lack of speed. However, in 1999, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) agreed that 802.11b would be the standard protocol for wireless LANs. This protocol offers 11 MB/s connectivity and access at up to 300 feet – perfect for an office or campus. Once the standard was agreed upon, vendors, such as Lucent, 3Com, Cisco, Apple and Compaq, began developing and adapting the hardware needed to form a wireless network.
However, while 11 MB/s is a vast improvement over previous wireless LAN speeds, network managers say the performance tops out at a level that is comparable to a shared 10 MB/s Ethernet.
That’s fine for e-mail, Web browsing, file access and interaction with corporate systems, but many companies have moved to 10/100 switched Ethernet for bandwidth-intensive applications. By the end of 2001, vendors should begin initial shipments of IEEE 802.11a-based wireless LANs, which offer data rates of up to 54 MB/s.
These faster rates are capable of supporting a broader range of applications operating, simultaneously, on the same wireless LAN, thus opening up new opportunities for wireless products outside of the typical wireless environment. And, for any company that would prefer not to pour a bunch of money into wiring and unwiring each new office and cubicle, it’s a viable solution – one that is raising many eyebrows. Predictions are that the wireless-data market will grow from the less-than 200 million subscribers of today to well over a billion by 2004.
"Among our clients in general," Zetie says, "the single biggest challenge is identifying business value. In fact, when asked to nominate the top barrier to adoption, more people opt for business value than for all other responses combined! Clearly, our clients are not rushing to adopt the technology for its own sake, but want to understand what it can do for their business – despite the hype around wireless."
Jumping on the (Little Red) Wagon
One company that hopped on the bandwagon early on is Recovered Capital Corporation (RCC). RCC employs a proprietary method for analyzing telecommunication bills for errors, overcharges and future rate reductions. It must carefully examine tariffs and meticulously maintain carrier contract/promotion databases. As business soared, the process of sharing large amounts of database information – in addition to the standard day-to-day communications between geographically dispersed offices – became an increasingly unmanageable responsibility, says Russ Hann, President and CEO of RCC.
"We’d reached the point where our business was growing so quickly, that synchronizing the various databases at our different offices had become a nearly-paralyzing daily task," he says. The company needed a better way to manage its business processes. Enter UpShot Corporation’s Web-based application. "The reality is, with this wireless interface I have access to everything on the way to a client’s office that I have in my own office," Hann says. "I’m talking about tasks that directly pertain to our core business – not just checking e-mail. I can get all of the information I need right from my wireless phone by accessing this application. Simply put, the days of loading my suitcase with paperwork are over."
There’s no doubt that wireless LANs can be a cost-cutting tool for IT managers, allowing them to design, deploy and enhance networks, without regard to the availability of wiring, saving both effort and dollars. The economic benefits can add up to as much as $16,000 per user – measured in worker productivity, organizational efficiency, revenue gain and cost savings – over wired alternatives.
For example, in 1995, Johns Hopkins University’s School of Public Health was facing a facelift upgrade of all its wiring at a cost of about $2.5 million. But, upgrading the school’s Ethernet LAN was going to be expensive, to the tune of $10,000 per classroom to put in false floors in the 80-year-old buildings. Including wiring costs, a conventional LAN would have cost $18,000 per classroom. By converting to a wireless LAN that requires two access points per classroom, each of which includes a radio transceiver, 10 Base-T port and encryption software, costs ran about $3,000 per classroom – $15,000 less than for a conventional LAN.
For IT managers, there are distinct advantages to this technology:
• Reduced networking costs. If rivers, freeways or other obstacles separate buildings you want to connect, a wireless solution may be much more economical than installing physical cable or leasing communications circuits, such as T1 service or 56 Kbps lines. Some organizations spend thousands, or even millions, of dollars to install physical links with nearby facilities.
• Reliability. A problem inherent to wired networks is the downtime due to cable faults. An advantage of wireless networking, therefore, results from the use of less cable. This reduces downtime of the network and the costs associated with replacing cables. The deployment of wireless networks greatly reduces the need for cable installation, making the network available for use much sooner.
• Long-term cost savings. A reorganization rate of 15 percent each year can result in yearly reconfiguration expenses as high as $250,000 for networks that have 6,000 interconnected devices. The advantage of wireless networking is, again, based on the lack of cable: You can move the network connection by simply relocating an employee’s PC.
Still, IT managers haven’t quite fallen head over heels in love with the concept. Understandably, they’re approaching this wireless revolution with a grain of skepticism about the security of wireless connections for vital functions, as well as lack of bandwidth. Wireless LAN management tools still lag behind in supporting large-scale, enterprise-sized deployments. Most tools assist in the management of small-scale deployments of 10 to 20 access points, but large-scale deployments require tools that allow for the easy reconfiguration of multiple access points from a central management station.
Who are the biggest players in this arena? Microsoft has produced software for a variety of wireless applications and is adapting its operating system for use in handheld devices. Microsoft is also applying the technology by implementing wireless networks on its campuses.
Both Intel and Microsoft have announced that new, Windows-based PCs will be Bluetooth-enabled this year.
Motorola is making a big move in the Bluetooth-enabled cell-phone space, despite losing a lot of market share to Nokia last year. And, Texas Instruments has invested a lot of time and money into wireless, in much smaller, application-specific companies either producing or developing products the company will use to take its fair market share.
Last year, Broadcom stirred up a lot of interest with its purchase of Innovent Systems, a semiconductor company that produces Bluetooth-activating chips for OEMs. Similarly, Parthus Technologies, a Dublin-based semiconductor company, has debuted a new Bluetooth chip. Some predict that the market for these chips could reach as high as $1 billion this year.
Security, or the lack of it, is a high priority, with regard to wireless LANs. Analysts say wireless LANs can be easily accessed by neighbors – friendly or not – and need strong protection. IT managers can provide robust security by making sure wireless users are authenticated, preferably with a user name and password, as well as a token. They also say encryption should be used end-to-end in a connection. Security can even be made strong enough to allow purchases or money transfers over the Web, banks and retailers say.
Because wireless networks use shared radio waves to transmit data, they are particularly vulnerable to security breaches, which is why the 802.11 standard and WEP were created. Flaws exposed by The Internet Security, Applications, Authentication and Cryptography (ISAAC) group make it possible – if not always easy – to intercept and decrypt wireless traffic from laptop computers or personal digital assistants (PDAs) using the 802.11 standard.
Hundreds of products employ the standard, which is meant to make wireless transmissions as safe as using a wired network by encrypting wireless traffic and using WEP to authenticate nodes. The flaws make propriety wireless technologies vulnerable and leave systems that rely on network base stations open to attack.
Cisco recently released one security solution in the Aironet wireless networking security framework, based upon the proposed IEEE 802.1x standard. With it, enterprises can, for the first time, scale wireless deployments to thousands of users with a standard, centralized security management framework. This enterprise-class security framework delivers scalable, centralized security management and supports dynamic, single-session, single-user encryption keys integrated with network logon.
One of Cisco’s customers, Microsoft, has installed this product line throughout more than 80 percent of its facilities in Redmond, Calif., making it the largest wireless LAN in the world.
There are other problems, beyond security, that need to be worked out. Network connectivity without cables share the 2.4 GHz frequency band, not only with other wireless LAN users, but also with other devices. These range from microwave ovens to cordless phones to short-range devices, designed to provide wireless connections between laptops and printers.
In addition, major network equipment vendors have developed wireless LAN products for home offices, providing mobility for laptops equipped with $99 wireless LAN cards. These and other developments are expected to drive 41 percent growth in the wireless LAN market over the next two years, peaking at 33.9 million units in 2002.
For example, Symbol Technologies is working with Swedish telecommunications provider Telia to install public wireless LANs in places like airports so that busy commuters can "telecommute" while waiting for their next flight. Instead of reading the newspaper, commuters can access e-mail, Web and other information over a wireless, 11 MB/s network. Airports equipped with wireless technology include Dallas/Fort Worth, Austin-Bergstrom, Seattle-Tacoma and New York’s John F. Kennedy International.
Also, network managers often find that wireless LANs fall short of expected range. Even though a vendor’s specifications may say that the wireless has a range of 300 feet, obstacles such as walls, desks and filing cabinets can significantly decrease the range in some directions. Network managers also report a common problem dealing with the availability of electrical power when installing wireless LAN access points.
Despite these concerns, wireless technology is here to stay. IT managers must learn to adapt, adopt and, ultimately, embrace it in order to stay competitive.
"The enterprise WLAN market will continue its rapid growth rate and will largely be driven by mobile end users who will continue their insatiable demands for high speed LAN connectivity," says Bob Egan, Vice President at GartnerGroup. "Critical to the adoption of WLAN solutions is the maturity and experience of traditional network equipment suppliers to meet enterprise customers’ strict requirements, particularly in the area of security."
Philip E. Courtney is a marketing consultant and technical journalist with 20 of years experience in the IT industry. He can be reached at www.philcourtney.com.
WAP: Some Say It's Hot, Others Not
The Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) is a hot topic that has been widely hyped in the mobile industry and outside of it. WAP is simply a protocol – a standardized way that a mobile phone talks to a server installed in the mobile phone network. It is amazing how in less than a year, it has become imperative for all information.
Imagine surfing the Web on a cell phone you can carry around in your pocket – assuming you have the patience to navigate on a screen the size of two thumbprints, typically delivered at 9.6 Kbps (kilobits per second) or 14.4 Kbps, depending on the service provider’s network. This happens to be one of the biggest barriers to the development of WAP. In two to five years, bandwidth is expected to grow dramatically, but users will probably need to buy new handhelds to benefit.
So, why has WAP heated up so fast?
• It satisfies the hunger of mobile consumers to receive increased functionality and value from their mobile devices, and WAP opens the door to this untapped market that surpassed 100 million WAP-enabled devices in 2000. Did you know that there could potentially be one billion mobile phone users in the world by 2005? That’s why most subscribers will have phones that facilitate not only voice communication, but wireless data communication for access to content on the Internet.
• It provides a standardized way of linking the Internet to mobile phones, thereby connecting two of the hottest industries, anywhere.
• Intranet information, such as corporate databases, can be accessed via WAP technology. Because a wide range of handset manufacturers already supports the WAP initiative, users have significant freedom of choice when selecting mobile terminals and the applications they support.
It is expected that mobile terminal manufacturers will experience significant change as a result of WAP technology – a change that will impact the look and feel of the hardware they produce. The main issues faced by this arm of the industry concern the size of mobile phones, power supplies, display size, usability, processing power and the role of personal digital assistants (PDAs) and other mobile terminals.
Realtime applications and services demand key pieces of information that fuel the success of WAP in the mobile marketplace. Stock prices, news, weather and travel are only some of the areas in which WAP will provide services for mobile users.