Wi-Fi: Why and why not

Computerworld (US)

Without a doubt, one of the few growth areas of the industry today is wireless network technology built around the 802.11x standard. According to my company, Jupiter Research, corporate deployment of 802.11 devices (including adapter cards and access points) will reach 99 million by 2008, up from 14 million in 2003 — representing a compound annual growth rate of 48 percent.

The primary key to this growth will be standards compliance. The expected ratification of 802.11g and 802.11i this year will provide the backward compatibility and security that enterprises seek, while combined industry efforts led by Intel Corp. (with its Centrino chip), Cisco Systems Inc. and the Wi-Fi Alliance will help interoperability between vendor products and simultaneously raise corporate awareness.

There are a number of benefits to deploying corporate wireless LANs, which should put them on most IT departments’ to-do lists in 2003. But you need to know a few caveats.

There are cost savings associated with using a WLAN instead of traditional wired technology, but saving money isn’t going to be the biggest driver. Rather, the additional productivity gains associated with wireless are what make WLANs useful and, combined with the cost savings, create a powerful argument to get a WLAN project approved.

Before you run out and start cutting purchase orders for Wi-Fi access points, remember that one size WLAN does not fit all organizations. Organizations of different sizes will have different issues to resolve. Large companies will have greater concerns about security and will be focused on the confusion over evolving security standards that hinder adoption in that market. Smaller businesses should first focus on justifying initial start-up costs and look for ways to lower those as much as possible. These problems are critical for IT departments to address prior to implementation but can be easily resolved with some upfront planning.

For smaller companies, one way to drive down costs is to use existing standards-based products, such as those with 802.11b technology. That approach is technically viable and ensures compatibility with future investments. As costs for 802.11b equipment fall further, these purchases will be much easier to justify.

Big companies should also support existing standards, such as 802.11b, but in addition they need a road map toward 802.11g and 802.11i compliance in the products they buy via software and/or firmware upgrades. They should be prepared to offer multimode and 802.11g products once these standards are fully ratified. While large companies are least likely to be concerned about backward compatibility, they would be best served by taking a risk-averse approach and waiting for ratified 802.11g technology rather than risking short-term deployments of equipment that may become expensive to upgrade or may not interoperate with new gear.

Finally, improved security must become an important factor in selecting WLAN products. This remains the biggest barrier to wide-scale deployment.

The power of WLANs is readily apparent. The productivity of knowledge workers greatly increases when mobile technology — lightweight laptops, Tablet PCs and powerful handheld devices — are enhanced with high-speed WLAN connections. Because more users are dependent on network connections in order to be productive, WLANs can help extend this reach and therefore justify their costs in terms of ROI gained. The key is to balance the gains and focus on the issues that are appropriate to your business, then deploy and watch the accolades come into your in-box — wirelessly, of course.

Michael Gartenberg is research director for the Client Access and Technologies group at Jupiter Research in New York. Contact him at michael_gartenberg@mindspring.com.