The A

Wireless networks have secured a place in the hearts of the enterprise right down to the home user. The convenience of being able to connect to your network from anywhere at any time has really been the driving force propelling this industry forward. As it stands now, wireless local area networks (WLAN) run over the IEEE standard 802.11b. Although 802.11b is a satisfactory standard for the enterprise, a newer, heftier, and faster standard has appeared in the game causing businesses to question the efficiency and capability of .11b. Aptly named 802.11a, the question for the enterprise remains whether this newer standard should be implemented and what the real benefits are, if any. What is the difference between .11a and .11b, and should companies be looking to make the switch?

Several vendors have already developed WLAN products with a clear migration path from .11b to .11a. The following is a detailed look into the two protocols and a peek into what is available and what the experts recommend.

Alphabet Soup

Although they are both wireless standards that allow for the transmission of information, 802.11b and 802.11a operate differently. The currently deployed 802.11b standard runs in the 2.4GHz frequency band and transmits at speeds of up to 11Mbps. Within the 2.4GHz band, 802.11b can carry distances of up to 150 feet, but is susceptible to interference from Bluetooth, home RF and microwave technologies, says Jason Smolek, research analyst, enterprise networks for IDC in Framingham, Mass.

Smolek says that .11a, which operates in the 5GHz frequency band, has no interference and carries a stronger signal. The drawback is that this signal can only be carried over approximately 50-feet distances.

“The trade-off with these is that you with 5GHz, you get more speed but less distance,” he says. “The other drawback is that (.11a) is more power consumptive.”

According to Jeff Rabin, a technology analyst with Toronto-based Dundee Securities Corp., the market for 802.11b is here.

“I see 802.11b in offices and homes,” Rabin says. “I don’t see a public business model for it. I don’t see companies using it to go up against the mobile phone operators like Rogers AT&T, Telus or Microcell. It is very good but there are problems with it like the network access is spotty and there are issues with security.”

Decisions, decisions

The differences between 802.11b and 802.11a are pretty clear, but how do you, as a network manager, know what route to take with your own wireless strategy?

IDC’s Smolek says that selecting between the two wireless protocols really depends on the type of company and what the company plans to use wireless for.

“I think engineering or architectural firms would be needing higher bandwidth,” he says. “But, when you are talking about the general enterprise who is just using (wireless infrastructure) for e-mail and file sharing, 802.11b would be very appropriate.”

Bruce Comeau agrees. Comeau, business networking specialist for 3Com Canada in Edmonton, says that 802.11b currently meets customer requirements. Comeau says that in terms of security, 802.11b has been available longer and has the majority of its bugs worked out.

“As far as the 802.11 standard in general, security will always be a problem when you have signals going through the air,” he says. “Security is always where you start with wireless.”

Enterasys Networks has found the same point true. According to Kelly Kanellakis, general manager of wireless business for Enterasys in Toronto, security and interoperability are equally important when thinking wirelessly.

“802.11b right now is a great standard: interoperable and widely deployed in terms of technologies,” Kanellakis says. “Early 802.11a basically does conform to the standard, but we have learned some things from doing .11b along the way. Some of the things we have learned are that security is really important as is interoperability. This early 802.11a conforms to the standard, but unfortunately there isn’t that interoperability component, and not necessarily what we think is going to be the final answer for security.”

Looking down the road

Companies like Enterasys, 3Com and Avaya are always looking at wireless options and developing solutions to fit into their customers’ environments. All three of these companies have recently announced strategies to incorporate a migration path within their product lines from 802.11b to 802.11a.

John Williams, director of data sales for Avaya, says that the company’s strategy is very simple: to offer a dual slotted access point that has the capability of holding both an 802.11b and 802.11a card within the same infrastructure.

Comeau says that 3Com recognizes that there is always going to be a shift in the industry and it is committed to developing solutions to fit customer demand.

Enterasys’ Kanellakis remains wary of what he refers to as early 802.11a, but says that Enterasys has migration paths built into its wireless solutions to give customers choice.

“The benefits of 802.11a and 802.11b really complement each other,” says Avaya’s Williams. “You can have the capability in a well-designed system to determine which applications require the higher bandwidth of .11a. At the same time, you allow the greater mobility, lower speed applications to run on .11b. You are now going to have a choice between mobility – wider area – or high-speed applications with greater flexibility.”

Still, IDC’s Smolek warns that the transition from .11b to .11a may not be in the enterprise’s best interest.

“If you have an existing investment in .11b, or if you don’t, .11a is still expensive and if you have to upgrade to that system, that is where your costs are coming in,” he says.

In the meantime

According to an October 2001 Gartner research note entitled 802.11a Wireless LANs: The Future Now or Later?, “During the next two years a number of vendor issues (e.g., establishment of certification bodies) and governmental issues (frequencies) must be yet addressed to bring 802.11a to the level of acceptability enjoyed today by 802.11b. Until that time, all vendor implementations are ‘proprietary,’ and buyers should be wary of this aspect… Users deploying 802.11b can proceed without concern about 802.11a’s emergence as a successor. An 802.11b purchase will remain a viable solution even when 802.11a is accepted as it is located in a different frequency band.”

IDC’s Smolek agrees and says that IDC sees mainstream 802.11a adoption overriding 802.11b until as far away as 2004-2005.

Enterasys’ Kanellakis says that he thinks 802.11b is sufficient for most enterprises right now. He says that the only people wanting to roll out 802.11a are those who simply want to be early adopters.

“I think that 802.11b will be around for a while,” he says. “I think what will happen is what we saw in the networking business. Initially we had hubbed Ethernet. Then we moved to switched Ethernet. What we have seen is hubbed Ethernet move into the home market. I think there will always be a place for 802.11b in areas where people just don’t need 802.11a.”

3Com’s Comeau recommends that customers looking to deploy WLAN technology should go with 802.11b as both the security and the choice is there.

“(802.11b) allows the customer more opportunity to shop around and it is certainly a lower cost solution. There really isn’t much choice out there in terms of 802.11a.”

Avaya’s Williams says that as far as the future is concerned, 802.11b will likely remain where it has been the strongest: in the education, health care and large campus-like environments. He says that 802.11a will probably be suited for the smaller office that is looking to replace its cabling infrastructure.

“Right now there are many more products and chipsets available (for 802.11b) and it is much cheaper,” says Dundee’s Rabin. “I don’t think there is going to be any kind of war (between the two protocols). I don’t see any competition between them. Most of the chips going forward are going to be dual-mode.”