WLANs on the move

On a growing number of university campuses across Canada, students and teachers are able to log on to their networks while sitting in the bleachers at the football field, out on the campus grounds, or in some cases even from their dorms. Nurses and doctors in select hospitals across the country are also getting access to their networks as they travel from floor to floor, or while visiting with various patients.

Wireless LAN (WLAN) technology has hit a strong note with the healthcare and education markets in Canada, and both have found value in their implementation. A WLAN enables access to real-time data and information that a wired LAN can’t offer, and the technology – based on the 802.11 protocol – is seeing a lot of interest.

Flavour of choice

The 802.11 spec has many variations, but of these it is 802.11b that is by far the most popular and widely used. This protocol offers up to 11Mbps, and runs in the 2.4GHz spectrum, the same range used by microwaves and cordless telephones.

Next in the 802.11 alphabet soup is 802.11a, which promises to offer more speed – up to 54Mbps – and higher security. There is also an extension of the .11b spec coming down the pipe, known as .11g. This will increase speeds to 22Mbps.

Edmonton-based Bruce Comeau, sales manager with 3Com Corp. for Western Canada, noted that while .11a will ultimately offer the fastest speeds, there is a trade-off.

“.11b and .11g will operate at greater distances, which is up to 300 feet right now, whereas .11a is much shorter,” he says. “So if you wanted to go to .11a, you would have to put in a larger number of access points or antennas to cover the same area. At the same time, the cost points are quite attractive right now, certainly in the .11b space.”

Comeau says an industry standard 802.11b wireless card costs anywhere from US$75 to US$100, whereas on the .11a side, the costs will be significantly higher.

Along with these, there are still other wireless technologies in the works, such as Ultra Wide Band (UWB), Hyper LAN 1 and 2 and Bluetooth.

“All of these are out there, and each has a group looking at standardizing them and getting them adopted,” says Kelly Kanellakis, director of technology at Enterasys Networks Inc.’s Canadian arm in Toronto. “But the reality is, I don’t see these having any significant market share over the next few years, if any market share at all. Some of them, I am quite sure, are just going to disappear.”

Kanellakis says wireless technology is plagued with the same kind of cycle that surrounds many technologies. For example, he says when Ethernet was introduced, a debate emerged about what would be the next big thing to replace it. The same goes for wireless.

Analysts and vendors agree that the 802.11 roadmap is clear, at least for the next few years. 802.11b is here and is meeting needs now, and .11a will follow with .11g after that.

Speedy recovery

While specific verticals such as healthcare and education are finding wireless to be a blessing, there is some debate about how effective the technology is in an average office environment.

Vendors say they are hearing interest from enterprise customers, and that the implementation of the technology in other areas is helping to push average office environments to take a closer look at WLANs. Other factors beefing up its profile: the growth of laptop use and PDAs by mobile workforces. Most laptops now shipping have 802.11 NICs embedded as a standard feature.

And in many situations, it is the ease of wireless that makes it appealing for offices, according to one industry pundit.

Hillsborough, N.C.-based Bill Clark, research director, mobile applications and personal area networking for Gartner Inc., offered an instance where one of his New York-based clients had to move into a new building after the 9/11 disaster. The company was actually able to get its networks up and running via 802.11b more quickly than if it had invested the time it takes to pull cable and find all the network connection outlets for each office and cubicle.

“It was easier for them just to bring an entire office up in a fast-deployment scenario,” he notes.

Clark adds that another vertical market which could – and should – readily be taking advantage of the benefits of WLANs is any company that is involved in manufacturing.

One Montreal-based company is doing just that. Mitchel-Lincoln Packaging Ltd. converts raw material into corrugated cardboard, which is then used to make packaging, according to John Morissette, the company’s senior technical director, MIS. With several factories in Canada, the company has been using 802.11b technology from Avaya Inc. for about two years. And while Morissette says the firm has found great use for the technology in the factory, it is also beginning to utilize it in its office environments.

“In the office environment, it is primarily a (wireline) copper installation,” Morissette notes. “However we did take the initiative to install at least one wireless bridge in that environment that allows use of some laptops to move between the two areas quite seamlessly. In the Montreal location, we are a much older installation – about a 30-year-old installation that is almost 100 per cent copper. But recently the initiative came up where we had to make a change in the factory floor and to do so with copper was going to be very costly and very, very time consuming.”

So instead, the company took a look at the cost of wireless, which Morissette says has come down considerably in the last few years, and decided to make use of the technology in this area. Now the company has both systems intertwined primarily in the production environment, but it is also slowly moving it into the office environment.

On the factory floor, users have access to real-time access to the production system, which enables them to input production quantities and information, Morissette added. In the office area, laptops offer access to regular business applications such as accounts receivable. But if an office worker needed to go out to the floor, he or she would be able to do so and still have access to the network.

A change of scenery

The value of this type of technology in an office is questionable because, for the most part, a wired LAN meets most firms’ requirements. But at least one vendor says it might be worthy of investigation. In particular, companies which are readily growing, which tend to have a lot of meetings, or have a lot of laptops in their midst make ideal candidates.

“Based on our sales activity and the number of presentations and seminars and people that have asked us to come talk to them, or have come to talk to us, we’re averaging probably in the neighbourhood of 200 to 300 organizations a month who have interest in this,” says John Williams, director of distribution sales for Avaya Canada in Markham, Ont.

When Kerry McLellan started up software company Kinek Technologies Inc. in Saint John, N.B., about a year and a half ago, he anticipated a rapid level of growth in a short amount of time. That was just one of many reasons which spurred Kinek to go with wireless technology from 3Com for its networks.

The company, which develops software for the logistics market, did end up growing fairly quickly, just as McLellan had predicted. And despite the fact that at that point in time 802.11 was just beginning to make some noise, the decision to implement a wireless LAN is one that Kinek so far does not regret.

But as McLellan explains, rapid growth was not the only driver for the technology’s implementation.

“One (reason) was the speed of getting the network up,” McLellan says. “The second (reason was that)…we did four facility moves in 18 months, and we did them with very little pain because of the selection of wireless technology.”

The fact that the company was not required to rip out and replace cabling each time it changed locations made for a more simplistic move. It also meant the company saved money because it did not have to pay for those processes.

But more than that, McLellan says being a wire-free zone offered a good fit for Kinek’s employees.

“Our culture was based around teams, and team problem solving. Even though we are a software company, we decided that even our development staff would have laptops. Everybody has a laptop, which is highly unusual in a software development company, but it fit into our approach that we’re going to take a team approach to problem-solving and development,” he explains. “This allowed people to come together in a room, bring their technology with them, work collaboratively, and then break apart and go away. They solved that problem right in that session as opposed to going away and getting back together again.”

Having a multitude of laptops in an enterprise environment is one main reason for choosing wireless, according to Nick De Castro, computer network specialist with Altuno Inc. in Toronto. But, he adds, another reason is “installation flexibility. Certain locations may have difficulty cabling to specific areas. Where cabling becomes difficult or costly, wireless technology may be a wise alternative.”

In fact, most enterprises might want to consider implementing a WLAN in conjunction with their existing wired LAN as the use of laptops increases, according to Enterasys’s Kanellakis. More and more employees are finding themselves in need of real-time data – such as sales people and executives who are constantly in and out of meetings – so a WLAN would make sense.

“Looking at some of the statistics I have seen, laptops will probably overtake desktop sales in businesses fairly shortly,” he says.