The network

A few years ago, network managers knew where to find the edge of their network: It ended at the desktop, and there was a clear demarcation between the LAN and WAN. Wireless networks have changed that relatively simple scheme. The edge of the network has expanded to the point where there is really no perimeter.

The biggest driver for the vanishing edge of the network is the wireless Ethernet standard 802.11, also known as Wi-Fi. It is extending the corporate network to employees who are untethered as they move from building to building, site to site, or room to room. Anywhere a Wi-Fi “hot spot” has been installed can be a point of entry to the network. The devices accessing the network also have multiplied. Data-enabled cell phones and PDAs have joined laptop computers in the rush to provide increased mobility to road warriors.

This creates enormous challenges for network managers. Ratification of the 802.11b standard for 11Mbps wireless connectivity, equipment interoperability and drastically lower deployment costs provides an entry for all wireless devices into the enterprise network. Gartner Inc. estimates that two-thirds of the world’s 1,000 largest companies will use Wi-Fi networks by 2005. Wireless networks’ obvious benefits are productivity and efficiency of employees with flexibility and rapid deployment of networks. However, they also present major challenges.

Network security is one challenge. The security of 802.11b networks, which use single-key encryption systems, is highly susceptible to “drive-by” hackers. Products are needed to support data protection, authentication and authorization.

Interoperability is another challenge. Even with a specification for compatibility, the standard allows for a plethora of options defined in the task groups and options of the standard.

Perhaps the most impressive challenge is wireless LAN network deployment and management. Many IT staffs are not familiar with wireless infrastructure deployment, management and maintenance. It is difficult to manage a network if you don’t know what device is accessing it and from where. Network management is a lot more complex than it was when there was a definable edge.

For venture capitalists, these challenges translate into investment opportunities. Mayfield’s wireless strategy starts at the component level and extends to wireless equipment and service companies. One of our investments, Ubicom, makes processors that can be used in products such as wireless access points, routers, broadband modems and voice-over-IP phones. MobileWay, another Mayfield investment, lets companies distribute information and text messages to mobile users globally.

Learning to manage networks that have no edge will be an ongoing issue for network managers. But the benefits from the vanishing edge of the network will far overshadow the difficulties.

Janice Roberts is a general partner with Mayfield, a venture capital firm in Menlo Park, Calif. She can be reached