Cabling and the untethered enterprise

Just last year, Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital opened its Informatics Technovision Unit (ITU), bringing together 70 staff who had previously been scattered throughout the hospital. The ITU — composed of technology, clinical, and academic partners — identifies information and communication technology solutions to support and enhance health care delivery. Although now under one roof, ITU staff members frequently roam the hospital. Wireless connectivity to the ITU network gives staff access to data on the network, and they can take calls on their wireless VoIP phones. While wireless is critical to the success of the ITU, department workstations are hardwired so ITU members do consume wireless bandwidth when in the office. In short, Mount Sinai ITU staff are untethered from the network when they need to be, and are hardwired when in the office.

The much-hyped promise of anywhere-anytime communications is not yet a reality. However, if a business case can be made to untether the enterprise, then the technology—from wireless LANs and WANs, and WiFi hot spots to cellular and satellite voice and data connectivity—exists to make it happen.

Overall, the growth of wireless means fewer cables pulled behind walls and over ceiling tiles. But it does not mean an end to cables, as there will always be a hard-wired backbone supporting wireless data and voice communications and some wireless access points will need to be hard-wired to the network.

As with the convergence of data, voice, and multimedia over IP networks, wireless has gone mainstream, says Andreas Antonopoulos, senior vice-president and founding partner of New York-based Nemertes Research Inc. “It’s true to say there will always be wired networks but for some applications, wireless is preferred. The bandwidth required for everyday computing, and even multimedia applications, has been reduced while the available bandwidth on wireless networks is increasing.”

While wired networks can run Gigabit Ethernet (GigE), that kind of capacity isn’t required on most desktops, Antonopoulos says. Although not in common use, 10 megabit wireless — the same capacity delivered to most desktops today — has been unveiled, “so I can do wireless and fulfill business needs.”

Wireless is not just about anywhere-anytime communications or even the freedom to roam the enterprise campus, Antonopoulos says. He sees wireless becoming “the default option for desktop computing and IP phones” because there is no cabling infrastructure required. “Pull a data plug to desk, you need to pull a wire. Pull two, you need to pull two wires. It’s easier to add wireless capacity. In a few years, all we’ll need Ethernet cabling for is power.”

But Rob Wessels, vice-president of cable research and development with Commscope Inc. in Claremont, N.C., disagrees. “Wireless is great tool for mobility,” he notes, but wireless will increase the demand for backbone cabling and horizontal cabling to support the broader installation of access points.

Advances in cabling contribute to growth in wireless, he says. Most enterprises have Category 6 cables and he is seeing movement to Category 6A with up to 10 gigabits. Then there is fibre optics.

In the medical field diagnoses are being made remotely as X-rays, analytical images and other “bandwidth hogs” move over high-speed wired network, and video conferencing is becoming a breakthrough application over wired IP networks, Wessels says. However, he notes that there will be continued growth in wireless networks that overlay the wired network. In addition, he readily acknowledges that moving between overlapping wireless networks, like wireless WANs, Wi-Fi, and cellular, is a growing trend. “Those networks are powerful for ubiquitous service but they are not bandwidth efficient between nodes.”

“Wireless is the new frontier,” says Heather Forrester, director of outright sales and solutions with Bell Canada. “Rather than being tethered to a work station in the enterprise, the endpoint that every enterprise is looking for is the ability to have employees traverse buildings, and the world, and maintain connectivity.” However, the enterprise will not go totally wireless anytime soon, even as it overlays wireless on the wired network. The bandwidth requirements of wireless do not equal wired, antennas, access points and transceivers still need wires, and there are power issues. Users have to recharge wireless devices, so the enterprise is still tethered to power, even if it migrates to Power over Ethernet (PoE), she says.

While an increasing number of wireless workers will access all applications and data on the network, most mobile workers access “slices of the network and real-time information” such as dispatch and billing, says Forrester.

When it comes to wireless adoption, “we are at the stage in Canada, and to some extent the U.S., where we are still just moving beyond the keen adopters,” says Lawrence Surtees, vice-president, communications research, IDC Canada Ltd. “The majority have yet to fully integrate wireless into communications, much less than into business processes and IT strategies. That being said, special application developers and wireless providers are pushing enterprise adoption of wireless. But is wireless a mass business phenomenon? Not yet.”

So cable installers can rest easy. The enterprise is not yet untethered. And even when the cords between workers and networks are cut, cables will still be required to support the wide array of wireless infrastructure and help workers move seamlessly between wireless nodes and networks—whether they traverse the world or the enterprise.

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