Time to cut the cord
Ready or not, we soon will be living in a wireless world. And now that broad vendor support, hardware improvements, and tougher security standards are on the horizon, the best advice to enterprises considering Wi-Fi is: Be ready
No one said it would be easy. IT decision makers have the unenviable task of separating the ripe from the hype when evaluating new technologies. They can be either aggressive adopters in hopes of gaining a competitive edge, or conservative observers in fear of wasting precious capital. When it comes to wireless fidelity (Wi-Fi) networks in the enterprise, the world is full of both attitudes.
Everyone understands that Wi-Fi networks—airborne connections that allow companies to extend network resources and back-office applications to employees in the field and across corporate grounds—have the potential to revolutionize how an enterprise does business. Wi-Fi not only boosts productivity by bringing the network to workers on the move, but it also can make businesses more agile and responsive to change.
For example, warehouse workers in a manufacturing company can use a Wi-Fi-enabled laptop to upload real-time inventory levels, allowing the company to reduce costs and improve efficiency by warehousing just enough materials to meet demand. A courier making deliveries to an office building can use a Wi-Fi connection to report his location and receive real-time pickup requests from customers inside the building and within a one-block radius—all without returning to his truck. This efficient method of communication not only maximizes the courier's time, but it also increases customer convenience because clients wait only minutes for their important packages to go out in the mail.
It's a winning situation for just about all parties involved. So why are some companies putting wireless LAN (WLAN) initiatives on the back burner for now? We can think of a few reasons—and tell you why they aren't very good reasons after all.
You don't want to wait in vain
The writing is on the wall: Demand for wireless access among the mobile workforce is skyrocketing. In fact, research firm Gartner, Inc., estimates that the number of frequent WLAN users in North America will increase from 4.2 million in 2003 to more than 31 million by 2007.1 That prediction amounts to a 700 percent jump in demand in just four years. Even in the fast-paced tech industry, that kind of increase raises eyebrows.
Despite the rosy outlook, some businesses remain skeptical, citing worries about security holes, management issues, and confusion over competing Wi-Fi standards. Healthy concerns? Sure. But enterprises cannot ignore the rapid convergence of industry groups, technology titans, and business users who all are working to speed Wi-Fi adoption. With such burgeoning support, companies that choose to wait for wireless might find themselves scrambling to catch up in the near future—a lesson that no business wants to learn the hard way.
The largest and most widely publicized concern surrounding Wi-Fi is its perceived
lack of security. Many people believe that access points (APs)—the equipment that
routes a wireless signal to a terrestrial Ethernet connection—are essentially unlocked doors that hackers can exploit to pilfer files or hitch a free ride to wireless Web surfing. But the reality is that a company can easily implement a secure wireless network today by taking the same precautions it took when deploying its wired network.
The key is to understand the technology and manage the people who will use it. From an organizational perspective, companies must develop and enforce usage guidelines for Wi-Fi-enabled devices. For example, an enterprise could instruct mobile workers to use only company-issued equipment, such as laptops or PDAs, when accessing the WLAN. Another possible measure would be adding a Wi-Fi orientation and policy course to an existing employee-training program.
On the technology side, an enterprise can fortify its WLAN in several ways. The first step should be to track down any "rogue" APs that employees may have set up on the company premises. Because APs are easy to install and configure, some astute workers already may be using Wi-Fi to get online while in meetings or sitting outside for a coffee break. If companies can get the unofficial APs under control, they can focus efforts on the APs that they have installed.
The next step is to augment Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP), the basic WLAN security protocol, with a traditional safeguard such as a firewall or virtual private network (VPN). A VPN, for example, creates a "tunnel" through a public network that wireless clients can use to communicate with the corporate network safely and inexpensively.
Enterprises also can use newer APs and network interface cards (NICs) that are based on a beefed-up WLAN security protocol called Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA). Recently ratified by the Wi-Fi Alliance, a nonprofit industry-standards body composed of high-tech vendors including Dell and Intel, WPA improves the way in which wireless routers authenticate Wi-Fi devices and encrypt data moving through the network.
In the near future, Wi-Fi will become even more secure. The Institute of Electrical
and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) currently is developing a stronger encryption and authentication standard, called IEEE® 802.11i, which will begin to appear in Wi-Fi products by the end of 2004. If you plan to implement a WLAN, be sure to choose a vendor with a low-cost upgrade path to 802.11i-equipped products.
Name that standard
In addition to security qualms, many enterprises cite Wi-Fi's identity crisis as a barrier to adoption. Currently, the industry calls two protocols "Wi-Fi"—802.11a and 802.11b—but these two protocols are not compatible. In other words, an 802.11a NIC will not work with an 802.11b AP, and vice versa.
Although the naming convention can be confusing, this situation does not harken back to the "Beta versus VHS" days, when millions of consumers invested in beta VCRs and tapes only to find the format phased out of the consumer world just a short time later. Because both 802.11a and 802.11b protocols are well defined and certified by the Wi-Fi Alliance, enterprises can pick the one that best meets their requirements and feel confident that money poured into one standard is not going down the drain.
For example, companies with an immediate need for a Wi-Fi network should consider 802.11b. It operates on three independent channels, sends data at up to 11 Mbps per channel, provides a 300-foot outdoor range, supports up to 256 simultaneous connections, and offers the most support from equipment vendors. The major drawback of 802.11b
is that it shares radio spectrum with common household items such as cordless phones and microwave ovens. As a result, 802.11b users may experience signal interference if they are too close to the break-room microwave during a coworker's afternoon popcorn binge.
On the other hand, businesses planning to implement a Wi-Fi network by the end of the year should consider investing in 802.11a. The specification runs on eight independent channels, offers data rates up to five times faster than 802.11b, supports up to 1,024 concurrent users, and operates on the relatively empty 5 GHz frequency band-causing fewer interference problems than 802.11b. The major drawback of 802.11a is that its outdoor range is limited to 25 feet, which means companies may have to deploy more APs than they would need to deploy with 802.11b.
In the near future, dual-mode APs and NICs that support both 802.11a and 802.11b will take the guesswork out of investing in Wi-Fi. Also look for products based on 802.11g, the backward—compatible follow-up standard to 802.11b. The 802.11g specification will have most of the same traits as its predecessor, including the interference issues, but will send data at up to 54 Mbps—just like 802.11a. At the time of this writing, the IEEE had not yet ratified the 802.11g standard, but analysts expect that ratification will happen soon. The few 802.11g products now on the market are based on draft versions of the specification and may not be compatible with the finished standard that ultimately is available.
Under new management
Another knock against WLANs is that they are a headache to manage. Enterprises must install, configure, and monitor each AP separately—no problem for companies with small-scale deployments, but a potential nightmare for enterprises with larger implementations.
In response, some wireless equipment vendors have introduced enterprise-class solutions that centralize WLAN intelligence, as well as automate IP addressing and routing calculations when an AP is plugged into a network. In the coming months, look for more solutions that streamline WLAN configuration and maintenance, and help companies reduce the cost of managing a wireless network.
When in roam
A lesser drawback to Wi-Fi is the dearth of roaming agreements between public AP, or
hotspot, providers. For example, a road warrior on a West Coast sales trip might need one hotspot account to access the company network from an airport lounge in Oakland, another account to get online from a café in Seattle, and yet another account to update a database from a hotel in Denver. Although the process can be a hassle for enterprise Wi-Fi users today, they should expect relief very soon.
Wireless Internet service providers (ISPs), such as T-Mobile USA, are building national networks of hotspots to provide users with broader Wi-Fi coverage. Eventually, one account will be sufficient to log on from any location with Wi-Fi access. And, according to Forrester Research, within two years major telecom carriers will start to bundle Wi-Fi access with their existing VPN and cellular offerings for one monthly rate.2 This development is especially important because it will allow business travellers to access public WLANs at a significantly lower cost than with a hotspot-access-only plan.
As WLANs gain acceptance, look for cheaper hotspot access prices, improved coverage through roaming agreements similar to those in the cellular phone industry, and "smart" phones and PDAs that use both cellular and Wi-Fi networks. Imagine needing an updated proposal, calling the office over a cellular link, and then downloading the new document over a Wi-Fi connection—all with one smart device.
Remember the titans
In addition to new Wi-Fi devices, WLAN capabilities are increasingly finding their
way into the mobile products that businesses use today. Gartner expects the proportion of laptops shipped with integrated Wi-Fi components to more than double from about 31 percent in 2004 to 68 percent in 2007.3 High-tech heavyweight Dell is leading this charge with its Wi-Fi-enabled DellTM InspironTM and Dell LatitudeTM notebooks. Dell also manufactures 802.11b NICs and APs for enterprise-scale Wi-Fi deployments.
In addition to processors, Intel has thrown its muscle behind public Wi-Fi hotspots, working with major book retailers, hoteliers, and fast food corporations to bring wireless access to the masses. Imagine browsing for literature or ordering a hamburger and hearing, "Would you like Wi-Fi with that?"
To buy or not to buy?
In light of concerns surrounding the maturity of Wi-Fi, enterprises should not overlook its potential benefits. Wireless networks give companies the ability to capture actionable data, such as inventory levels or customer preferences, in real time—making them more responsive to shifts in demand. These gains in efficiency not only boost competitiveness, but also help improve return on investment (ROI) because they remove costly delays from the decision-making process.
WLANs also give employees in the field immediate access to presentations, proposals, databases, and other network resources for engagements with customers, partners, and prospects. For example, a sales representative on her way to a meeting can use a Wi-Fi-enabled PDA to access her company's customer relationship
management (CRM) application for specific information about the client. She then can use this information to quickly tailor a sales pitch or offer special pricing. This enhanced
coordination with mobile workers can help enterprises improve customer satisfaction
and retention, while maximizing productivity.
Need more convincing that it's a wireless world? Jupiter Research estimates that 57 percent of U.S. companies currently use Wi-Fi networks and an additional 22 percent are planning to use them in the next 12 months.4 Although there is no such thing as a risk-free investment when it comes to new technologies, the biggest risk with Wi-Fi may be not taking the risk at all.
For more information:
Putting wireless to work
Although some enterprises might see Wi-Fi as a technology of the future, they can use it today to improve customer satisfaction, streamline business processes, and reduce costs. Here are some examples:
Airlines can install Wi-Fi in waiting areas to attract business travellers and differentiate themselves from the competition. Workers at these companies also can use wireless devices to input baggage information for check-in and tracking, as well as to input aircraft maintenance data for streamlined inspection and repairs. Hotels can install Wi-Fi connectivity to attract business travellers and improve communications among employees. When the cleaning service finishes sprucing up a room, for example, it can use a wireless device to notify a front-desk clerk that the room is ready for the next guest. By the swimming pool, a kitchen server can key in a customer's order using a Wi-Fi—enabled PDA without having to walk the order back to the kitchen—and can continue taking new orders as the kitchen gets a jump-start on preparing the food.