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Analysts: Wireless LANs could gain traction in 2002

This edition of Information Architect analyzes the implementation and future of wireless LANs.

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Analysts: Wireless LANs could gain traction in 2002

Industry observers say enterprises that require mobility may want to examine a wireless LAN as an adjunct to their wired LAN. Benefits include portability, cost savings and easier network administration burden. Uncertainty surrounding uniform industry standards, however, may be good reason to move deliberately.

by Garry Kranz

The need for a networked environment, coupled with a relocation to new offices, prompted Morristown Financial Group of New Jersey to make a far-sighted decision several years ago. Rather than paying for network installation and cabling, only to repeat the procedure after relocating, managing partner John Hyland opted for a wireless LAN to save money and to give his mobile employees greater flexibility.

"We started expanding in 1995 and knew we were going to need a way for employees to share documents easily. We also knew we'd be moving and didn't want to spend time and money wiring our office, only to leave it three months later. A wireless LAN was the most cost-effective solution, because we just unplugged everything when we moved and plugged it in at our new location," says Hyland, whose company does not have a wired network.

According to a Gartner Dataquest survey, only 21% of enterprises currently deploy a wireless LAN. Yet by 2002, Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Group expects half of all midsize to large businesses to be using wireless LANs in at least one of their locations.

Gaining productivity?

Financial services companies like Morristown Financial are among early adopters, as are companies in education and health care. Any enterprise in which employees need remote access to special applications or documents could benefit, says Gemma Paulo, an analyst with Cahners In-Stat Group in Scottsdale, Ariz. "A wireless LAN is an extension of your computer network, enabling you to communicate with remote sites in ways not possible before. It can be an especially good solution if you have a large distributed computing enterprise but don't have IT managers on site," says Paulo.

Paulo and other experts say wireless LANs enable mobile professionals to get more work done. Equipped with laptops containing network interface cards, for example, salespeople can travel to satellite offices, log in to the company network and answer customer e-mail. Instant messages could be sent from company headquarters to field personnel via their PDAs. Engineers in dispersed locations could share documents and applications to collaborate on projects virtually. "If you can demonstrate that your employees are being more productive by using a wireless LAN, and in turn this saves the company money, those are powerful incentives," says Jared Huizenga, program manager for Sage Research Inc. in Natick, Mass.

It is difficult, however, to quantify those gains, says Galen Schreck, an analyst with Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass. "No one's really shown a productivity gain that you could put a dollar value on," he says.

Move cautiously

Before implementing a wireless LAN, it's important to understand the limitations of current technology, says Schreck. Most wireless LANs use the 802.11b standard developed by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). This standard enables high data rates of 11M bit/sec., which is a measurement of bandwidth. "A handful of users get dedicated high-speed access. Other users would have to share the remaining channels. You'd need a bunch of access points to provide good coverage for all your users," says Schreck.

Schreck points up another issue: reliable handoff of signals between access points in different subnets. Radio signals may not travel through concrete walls or other substructures, so your IT department needs to carefully position receivers to provide overlapping service and enable routers to send the correct messages to the correct IP addresses as users roam between subnets.

Paulo recommends starting with trial runs, dedicating your wireless LAN for certain functions, projects or departments and growing gradually. Shoring up security at the outset enables you to nimbly make adjustments or upgrades as technology improves. "Your IT administrator should make sure a firewall is in place, or you may want to have employees log in through a virtual private network. Also, avoid the mistake made by a lot of companies: failing to turn on their Web encryption," she says.

The cost of communicating

Figuring out implementation costs requires a comprehensive assessment of your network requirements. "The cost of the implementation depends primarily on the number of access points deployed and the number of network users," according to a report issued by Fremont, Calif.-based Celestix Networks Inc.

Budgeting for outside resources also may be necessary. Paulo says this is especially important if your IT staff lacks experience installing wireless networks. "If your implementation is complex, you may need to hire a system integrator to set up the network correctly."

Installing and maintaining a wireless LAN usually costs far less than a wired LAN, says Huizenga, due to reduced expenses for cabling and network administration. He says only 1% of companies rely on wireless LANs alone. By 2003, he notes, "wireless LANs will be used as commonly as wired LANs."

Watch the debate

Analysts are advising companies planning to install wireless LANs to monitor a debate raging on uniform industry standards. Three different organizations -- the IEEE, Japan-based Multimedia Mobile Access Communications Promotion Council and the European Telecommunications and Standards Institute -- have proposed competing standards. Gartner says these "warring wireless industry camps" are confusing customers and impeding broad adoption. A resolution isn't expected for at least one year.

About the author:
Garry Kranz is a freelance technology writer based in Richmond, Va.


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