WLAN architecture requires extra planning

Wireless networking on small and large scales is currently all the rage. Communicating digitally across the air, using various techniques, most commonly radio waves, has caught the attention of businesses and consumers everywhere, and the broader range of mobile solutions which this new cable-free type of network can offer places even more value behind the wireless prospect.

While deploying a wireless LAN (WLAN) environment in enterprise headquarters at first appears as simple as adding a wireless access point (AP) to the architecture, the cabling system connecting this AP to the necessarily wired backbone of the live business network is not always quite this simple.

In fact, from an architecture perspective, planning for the inclusion of such devices on the LAN remains crucially important, so that the cabling and infrastructure underpinning a wireless roll-out will be in place, capable of supporting this value-add to the corporate LAN and extracting the maximum potential from such a solution.

“In our deployments of high-end WLAN equipment, we insist that our customers build their wireless systems on the back of recognized cabling infrastructures. It is easy after all to remove and replace the active components of your network infrastructure once live, but once the cabling is installed it is in there for 10 years,” says Sadiq Malik, MD of South African wireless voice specialist, BCT Global.

BCT also insists that there should be a minimum cabling specification of at least Cat5e. Explains Maliq: “Wireless networks are today expected to carry converged voice and data traffic, and the only way the quality of such streams can be assured is to make sure that the application has enough available capacity on the backbone to be transmitted to the slower WLAN architecture at the maximum capable speed of the mobile device.”

“Thirty percent of the total cost of a standard WLAN implementation is, ironically, spent on cabling the back-end for this comms mechanism. If sub-standard cabling is installed and the wireless net loses connectivity, it is invariably the wireless solution that is blamed. That kind of negative user experience affects the business’s perception of our organization, which is why we will not do an installation if we do not consider that the architecture is of a high enough standard,” he concludes.

Andrew Hicks, Wires and Wireless MD, lives and breathes with the marriage of these two architectures, and says: “WLAN is a niche value-add to any serious business network. We cannot replicate the sheer performance and stability of a wire through thin air, and, going further and sharing the comparatively small bandwidth available from a wireless AP amongst multiple users, is clearly not a solution for deploying to machines which manipulate large network-based CAD files all day long for instance. High performance backplane networking will remain the first prize in the industry for a long time to come.”

He points out that the best wireless solutions are built around networks designed with wireless provisioning in mind. After all, the signal frequency at which these devices operate, is susceptible to all manner of interference, everything from heavy equipment down to office kitchen microwaves have an effect on this signal, so a site survey is a necessity before even installing the structured cabling to find out exactly where each wireless node is able to be deployed for maximum efficiency.

It would also be ideal if Power over Ethernet (PoE) capabilities are built into the architecture from day one, as this technology takes a lot of the difficulties of deploying wireless out of the equation, but needs the correct infrastructure on which to operate.

Hicks concurs that with the trend towards converged voice and data over wireless connectivity, the number of ports installed by the infrastructure industry may be falling, but the value per port of modern implementations has increased to balance this concern out.

Although WLAN does not require a speedy Gigabit Ethernet backbone to run the applications it needs to run, the cabling architecture does need to be carefully planned, and cables themselves must feature low latency and be reliable for the deployment to be successful.

Adds Hicks: “Although in the wireless world it would seem the physical infrastructure no longer means as much anymore, deploying WLAN on an iffy network is just too risky. In a conventional structured cabling network, if a single cable goes down, that is a single connection lost. With WLAN, if the cable linking the AP to the LAN suffers a problem, that is an entire wireless segment of the network cut off.”

Although the cabled network is not going to be under any threat from wireless in the next ten years at least, the wireless and mobile sector is undergoing massive growth as enterprises come to grips with the advantages of incorporating WLAN into their architecture. This growth represents solid opportunities for the infrastructure provider capable of delivering the right means of connecting this solution into the cabled backbone network.

Related links:

A mesh mash of opinions on WLAN architecture

Wi-Fi Planet: Bell exec predicts WLAN boom for enterprise

US gov’t voices opposition to China’s WLAN standard

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