Wireless nets pose problems

The enterprise of the future will likely be one where employees may work wherever they are thanks to the development of wireless technology. But in today’s world, wireless networks are still in the maturing stages – and so are the management strategies behind them.

Some of the big players in the traditional, wireline net management space are nevertheless beginning to extend their reaches into the wireless void. The question arises: can the old guard effectively do the job, or should wireless management be left up to the wireless vendors?

According to HP Canada, there are very different challenges that network operators face when managing wireless versus fixed networks, and foremost is the lack of a unified standard.

“For service providers who have wireless networks, they may use three or four different protocols across the network,” said Xing Zeng, software category manager for HP in Mississauga, Ont. “It is tremendous work to really manage the wireless network.”

In order to alleviate some of the burden of managing a multitude of devices on wireless networks, HP has been working closely with mobile equipment providers including Lucent Technologies, Ericsson and Nokia to develop agents that gather information and present it back to the operator via HP’s flagship management suite, OpenView.

“I don’t think you need to design specific software to manage wireless networks” Zeng continued. “For example, our OpenView management software was originally designed to just manage IP networks. During the middle of our development, we found that the service providers had very strong interest in our product as well as our service management strategy. We found that all we had to do was design some agents. It is the agents that will send the information from the equipment or application to the operating console like OpenView Operations.”

He said that through OpenView, network managers are able to manage the entire network, whether it is IP, circuit-switched or wireless, from a single interface.

Still, for some businesses, the functionality of a management platform like OpenView may be too much of a good thing. RigStar Communications Inc., a voice and data services provider for the oil and gas industry in Calgary, said it relies on the management software provided by wireless equipment vendors to provide the necessary information for the network. For example, RigStar uses many 3Com wireless products, including access points and bridges, to send and receive information to remote oilrigs throughout Canada.

“We are basically using the products that the vendors provide,” said Gerry Boyarchuk, vice-president of special projects for RigStar. “It is more than satisfactory for us. With the management software built into the 3Com products for example, it saves us a lot of time than if we had to configure other software to (integrate) with them.”

However, IBM Corp. said it does not think that management software provided by wireless equipment vendors is robust enough to provide the detailed reports and alerts on potential problems. According to Michael Liang, a consultant for mobile and wireless with IBM’s Integrated Technology Services (ITS) division in Markham, Ont., equipment vendors normally provide very specific wireless management, and the products rarely integrate well with the existing network management system like Big Blue’s management arm, Tivoli Systems Inc.

“(Wireless equipment) vendors normally don’t have the capabilities that say Tivoli would have with statistical records and trend capturing,” Liang said. “Tivoli in itself is a utility that provides robustness so that I can go out and make custom scripts and customize my capturing so that I know how many users are on my wireless network throughout the day, for example. I can capture historical statistics on that.”

Geoffrey Cheng, a senior IT specialist and certified Tivoli Instructor for ITS concurred with HP’s conclusion that wireless-specific tools are an unnecessary addition to the network management strategy.

“For Tivoli…we can use existing infrastructure like performance management and event management tools to collect data from both wireless devices and the traditional LAN and WAN devices,” he said. “In that case, we can integrate the management functions into one console and the operator can just look at the single console to manage both the wireless environment as well as the traditional LAN and WAN environments.”

From IDC Canada Ltd.’s viewpoint, the management strategy for wireless networks is entirely dependent on the company using the technology. According to Lawrence Surtees, director of telecom research for IDC Canada, businesses that have existing network management platforms like OpenView and Tivoli will be more likely to integrate the wireless management capabilities into these solutions.

“Wireless is a very different beast, even though it in effect is part of, or becomes, an adjunct complement to the fixed network,” Surtees said. “While they are almost two different networks, they somehow have to be integrated and fused together. I think the big guys are already [providing ways to] do that. I don’t think you can have an optimum wireless network without having an optimum wired network.”