Opening doors with wireless networking

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This article appeared in the August, 2009 issue of CRN magazine.

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Opening doors with wireless networking
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Wireless networking is one technology that benefits everyone through commoditisation. Wireless cut its teeth in the consumer space, where convenience easily outweighs security and performance.

But the technology has been getting a lot better, and faster. Dual radios which reduce the amount of interference - and therefore improve reliability and performance - make it possible to have multiple networks in small areas. Draft N has pushed its way into the market despite its unratified state.

And security has improved with the release of the WPA and WPA2 standards. Maybe not enough to satisfy a bank, but sufficient for smaller businesses.

These three advances have made the technology more attractive to business, and commoditisation has made it more affordable. It has also opened the door to SME and enterprise for consumer-focused vendors, which have been making headway with less expensive but comparable products.

Vendors claim that wireless networking is growing, but those that CRN contacted were not able to provide figures to back this up. Dlink's Maurice Famularo says 10-15 percent growth is a conservative estimate.

Wireless networking has taken off in the consumer market. Over 95 percent of Netgear's networking products are now wireless, says Parker. He adds that wired networking has dropped off quite considerably in the past 12-18 months.

Another factor is Telstra Bigpond's advertising campaign to customers, which changed from selling broadband to promoting the benefits of wireless in the home, says Parker. 

Consumer trends have flowed upwards into the business world. The SOHO market (10 seats or below) use consumer products anyway, which means they will use N devices, says Parker. "It's a no-brainer for them."

Small businesses have followed the trend, according to Netgear. "Leading into Q2 we saw record sales of SMB wireless access points up 50% on 2008," says Parker, though he admits this was from a low base.

However, last year people were still reluctant to move to N in business, and that has changed, says Parker.

He attributes the rise of wireless to the wide acceptance of the draft N standard by notebook vendors. Nearly every notebook (and many netbooks) released this year has carried an "N" chipset, from Apple to Toshiba.

Intel has been pushing N chipsets for almost 18 months, feeding the market's impatience for the technology. The hardware vendors' de facto approval of the standard, plus their promises to update drivers to the final specification, seem to have won over those sick of waiting.

Most of wireless networking take-up in business is being driven by employees because they have it at home, says Gartner's Simpson. "If a consumer gets an ADSL2 link they very often take a wireless access point along with that. They're just after convenience on the phone and the stuff just works very effectively."

The speed boost of 80211n - which tops out at 100Mbit per second in reality, rather than the 300Mbit promised in marketing materials - is finally fast enough for a fully wireless office, says Simpson. The standard has the performance even for a dozen people using productivity programs like Microsoft Office.

"The typical office worker is only using a couple of megabits per second at most," says Simpson. "Wireless is practical now because it gives you that 100Mbit wired performance."

The average office worker needs 2-4Mbit/s in typical office productivity applications. Draft N devices have a theoretical bandwidth of a couple of hundred megabits. "The point is that today many people have 100Mbit/s to the desktop and the reality is they aren't using anywhere near that, let alone Gigabit," says Simpson.

Video needs 18Mbit/s per channel of video and can blow out network capacity quickly if several people are running videoconferences. However, videoconferencing and regular video use have not yet become common for small businesses.

Instead of network speed bottlenecks can pop up in the electrical infrastructure, as many recent devices use power over Ethernet. Draft N also has higher power requirements because it is running two radios instead of one. That means companies will need to install high capacity PoE supplies in wiring cabinets to handle a network carrying many access points.

Another potential bottleneck is in the wired network itself. Each N access point can churn up several hundred Mbits of bandwidth. A large installation will need a Gigabit backbone to carry the traffic, says Simpson.

When it comes to larger companies, however, the take-up hasn't been as swift. IT managers are reluctant to deploy a technology that hasn't been fully ratified, particularly if it applies to dozens of wireless access points that - in a worst case scenario - could have to be replaced to comply with the future standard.

One other factor slowing down wireless networking in the SME market is cost. The difference in price between wired and wireless networking for a company of 500 people is considerable, not least because of the variables that affect wireless signals over floors or separate buildings.

In the enterprise it's an expensive exercise to manage 20 to 100 access points and requires costly kit to manage.

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