The Wi-Fi Divide

The wireless wave has swept through colleges, hospitals, factory floors, retailers, downtowns, hot spots and the home, but it’s still just lapping at the edges of traditional enterprise office environments. As the original 802.11 standard approaches its 10th birthday, concerns about wireless security and management overhead keep the technology’s popularity in highly mobile “tile niches” from spilling over into enterprise “carpeted areas” and industries.

Carpeted-area wireless LAN (WLAN) deployments continue to face some significant roadblocks. Most of the employees who occupy these areas work at desks, and few have laptops. The low penetration of laptops replacing traditional office desktops is an inherent limitation and many companies continue to see them — and Wi-Fi — more as a convenience than a business necessity. The risks continue to outweigh the benefits by a significant margin.

To check the Wi-Fi pulse of the industry, Network World recently touched base with five companies in various stages of WLAN adoption, ranging from no-wireless policies to aggressive rollouts.

One Wi-Fi skeptic is Blue Cross of Idaho, a representative of the carpet-heavy insurance industry. Most employees work at desks with wired access, and very few have laptop computers. Except for one mobile training area, a strict no-wireless policy is enforced by Network Chemistry’s RFprotect monitoring technology.

“We wouldn’t shy away from wireless if we identified a real business need for it, but we just haven’t seen one on the campus,” says Jan Marshall, manager of technical and network services for the Blue Cross/Blue Shield franchise. “The amount of manpower required to keep a wired network secure and working is much less,” he adds.

Security still a concern
Nevertheless, security continues to hold back deployments. In a recent Gartner survey, 98 per cent of enterprise IT professionals said WLAN security was a major concern, and 60 per cent said it was not adequate. Financial institutions in particular are reluctant to deploy wireless. Some avoid WLANs completely, and others deploy the technology only to accommodate guests.

Prudential Financial is “cautiously optimistic” about WLAN security, says Jim White, vice-president of information systems. The company is testing the wireless waters with a 200-user pilot begun earlier this year. Before that, concerns about security and shared-media performance had kept wireless out of the company. “This year, speed, reliability and — at least, theoretically — security have improved,” White says, referring to ratification of the 802.11i wireless standard and the integration of authentication and Active Directory in Windows XP Service Pack 2. “We’re using [Wi-Fi Protected Access] and WPA2 encryption, plus the direct tie into Active Directory gives us additional controls over the environment.”

Ironically, the paradigm shift toward thin access points with centralized management that began about a year and a half ago initially slowed WLAN deployment. While replacing intelligent, distributed access points with this more centralized architecture enables better security, management and scalability, customers were baffled initially as vendors did an about-face and started singing a different tune.

“It took users a while to understand the benefits of the centralized architecture,” say Aaron Vance, senior analyst with Synergy Research. “Now they see how it is more conducive to large-scale rollouts that will have tangible business benefits to them. You can now scale up to tens of thousands of access points, which would have been operationally impossible in the distributed scenario.”

ROI considerations
This same carpeted/noncarpeted divide is manifested to some extent in enterprises as diverse as entertainment-focused West Edmonton Mall (WEM) and defense contractors Lockheed Martin and Textron. Billed as the world’s largest entertainment and shopping centre, the West Edmonton Mall covers the equivalent of 48 city blocks in Edmonton, Alberta, and includes 800 shops, 100 restaurants, a hotel and nine major entertainment attractions. Guests are provided with an uncommon 21st-century experience, and wireless connectivity is a part of it.

Having a huge facility to cover, WEM eschewed WLAN technology until thin access points with centralized management started to emerge about three years ago. The company settled on a WLAN infrastructure from Chantry (now part of Siemens’ HiPath portfolio) and began a phased rollout.

“We started with hospitality first, because that was the lowest-hanging fruit,” says Joe Schuldhaus, the mall’s vice-president of IT. “Management wanted to see some payback. We lit up the hotel, the conference centre and all of the hotel assets, including the food courts in the mall.”

Guests can purchase wireless Internet access, and the mall’s shops can piggyback on the wireless infrastructure. The network also is being leveraged to automate some of the mall’s operational facilities, collecting feeds from the security cameras and enabling the maintenance staff to interact with the HVAC systems remotely.

WEM, which is using AirTight’s SpectraGuard technology to monitor for rogue activity, is “not keeping wireless out of anywhere deliberately,” Schuldhaus says. While the focus is elsewhere, access points are being deployed in back-office environments, including some remote offices and executives’ homes. “We can manage them remotely and keep full ownership of the security,” he says. “Employees just power up their laptops and see everything as if they were here in the main facility.” As defense contractors, Lockheed Martin and Textron must run somewhat tighter network ships. The federal 8100.2 NIST standard regulates wireless deployments, and areas doing classified work can have no wireless communications.

“We’re right on the cusp, with wireless about to take off across the enterprise,” says Jasyn Voshell, senior IT auditor for Textron. WLANs cover about 20 per cent of Textron, with deployments split fairly equally between carpeted and noncarpeted areas. But going forward, the emphasis will be more one-sided.

“We will probably focus on the manufacturing areas first, because that’s where most of the measurable ROI is. People in manufacturing have to be mobile, and having cables all over the floors is dangerous. In the carpeted office spaces, wireless is more just a convenience for the conference rooms.”

Implementation inhibitors
Any type of wireless rollout is not an option in many carpeted areas. According to Forrester, laptops make up 22 per cent of the installed base of enterprise computers, and they still represent a minority of new purchases. The manufacturing sector, a WLAN early adopter, shows the highest preference for laptops, but they still account for just 32 per cent of its new acquisitions. The average for all sectors is 25 per cent, a number that doesn’t present a case for ubiquitous deployment.

Mobility has long been touted as a big productivity booster, and 44 per cent of respondents to the Gartner survey say increasing productivity was the primary reason to implement WLANs. However, such productivity is difficult to quantify and isn’t proving to be a compelling reason to extend WLANs throughout carpeted areas. When push comes to shove, they are still seen as a convenience.

Once companies do take the wireless plunge, their priorities and concerns quickly shift. According to the Gartner study, management becomes the bigger issue. “If you haven’t deployed, you are worried about security,” says Gartner research director Rachna Ahlawat. If you have deployed, you know that security isn’t the problem — it’s the management.”

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