Structured wireless: Revolutionizing a no-wires approach

Wireless LANs – specifically mesh networks – are creating another revolution, call it "structured wireless."

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Bob Jordan

The architectural beauty of a large science museum in Texas became problematic recently when it sought to update its aging network. With 3-foot thick limestone walls, 30-foot high ceilings, and rooms spanning upwards of 6,000 square feet, the museum had no clear solution on how it could alter or expand its 15-year-old system due to an Ethernet-unfriendly architecture.

Yet, The Science Place in Dallas was able to overcome the challenges it faced by implementing a wireless mesh system allowing the network to be accessed in all areas of the building.

A structured wireless revolution
Structured wiring revolutionized local area networks and information technology strategies. Wireless LANs – specifically mesh networks – are creating another revolution, call it "structured wireless."

Some IT planning consultants view wireless LANs as simply a feature of the wired network, or as a logical extension of the wires. Nothing could be further from the truth. Instead of simply extending the IT strategy to include wireless, the smart planner takes advantage of structured wireless as an opportunity to exploit fundamental differences in the technologies with a resulting payoff to the business.

First, there is the potential for wire replacement with its savings in capital and operating expenses. Second, structured wireless removes restrictions on employee mobility, placing people at the site of data and fundamentally improving business processes.

The thoughtful IT planner must also devise risk mitigation strategies. For example, mobility comes at a price, because the physical port no longer defines the user. This creates the need for fundamentally different access and security policies. Well-designed structured wireless systems include the required tools to mitigate risks and eliminate worries.

Reducing expenses
The nature of mesh networks provides clear benefits: Wireless links eliminate the cost of Ethernet cabling to every access point, self-organizing and healing features lower the cost of administration and operation, and a mesh's inherent ability to scale with new users makes adds, moves and changes far less costly.

The potential for wire replacement is dramatic. A medium-sized building with 150 users and approximately 50,000 square feet requires nearly 5 miles of cabling to wire every user. Traditional wireless LAN equipment, be it standalone access points or switched gear, requires about 0.5 miles of cabling. A mesh network needs only 3 feet -- a dramatic change in the cost to deploy a network.

And when it comes to daily operations, a wireless mesh can cost up to 98% less than its wired counterpart.

Clearly, in-building wires will not disappear, as they provide speed advantages for large file transfers or demanding applications, such as computer-aided design tools. But an IT strategy must allow for wireless integration and for capturing cost savings wherever possible.

For example, a structured wireless network can cross the road without a trench or permit to connect multiple in-building systems. And it enables wireless nodes to be placed anywhere users require broadband access but wires cannot reach, such as in the middle of a factory floor, a car dealership lot or an outdoor transportation yard.

Improved processes
Traditional wireless networks are a collection of access points that depend on the wired network plus gateways, appliances or so-called wireless switches. Even so, many companies report significant benefits ranging from anecdotal productivity improvements to carefully measured improvements in accuracy and asset turnover. Structured wireless networks deliver the same benefits but without the wait for installers, conduit, cabling, or switches. And they extend the benefits farther than wire -- or traditional wireless -- can reach in the business.

The no-wires aspect of a wireless mesh eliminates the restrictions of specific desks or offices. Instead, structured wireless gives network access to users in conference rooms, shop floors, inventory yards, and related campus buildings. With a remote edge node and a wireless backhaul, business continuity can be maintained even when buildings are evacuated.

In short, the notion of "network" can be redefined around the business need, work operations, the data, and the employees without regard for wired port locations. This expands the reach of benefits. For example, a company can enable data entry at the point of origin, eliminate errors from handwriting, and immediately cross-correlate data to avoid adverse affects or to match orders and inventory.

Traditional wireless solutions often cannot reach all of the point-of-origin data sites, leaving physical gaps in coverage and logical gaps in the process. Structured wireless, by design, extends beyond the reach of wired ports.

Decreasing IT worries
Structured wireless networks are designed to provide benefits for the line of business manager while providing the IT manger with the ability to secure, control, and manage the network.

By design, a structured wireless network is an engineered system. A properly designed managed mesh secures itself, assuring automatic authentication and encryption over the wireless mesh links. The control software continually scans the environment and selects the best combination of radio channels and available links to maintain optimum performance end-to-end.

And, by design, a structured wireless network includes its own management and security tools while drawing upon resources available in the wired network to avoid duplication. For example, wireless gateways often provide their own DHCP server and authentication server. Thus they require duplicate administration and do not seamlessly manage the user over both the wired and wireless segments of the corporate network. A structured wireless network does not duplicate IT functions and is designed to readily integrate with them.

For example, a structured wireless network could employ standard Microsoft XP clients in laptop computers, along with the authentication and authorization facilities available in Microsoft Server 2003. Mobile users can be administered with the same login and password, and receive the same privileges, on both the wired and the wireless networks, providing a seamless integration from the user's point of view. All the while, the IT manager maintains strict control of access to both the network and the corporate files.

It began when early users introduced rogue access points to unhook themselves from their desks. It evolved into today's new IT strategic plan that redefines the network to embrace mobile users, frees the users from a dependence on wired ports, and works backwards from business needs to control mechanisms. Welcome aboard.



About the author:
Bob Jordan is co-founder and vice president of Strix Systems. Jordan has served as COO at Acorn Technologies, vice president of cable television optical networking at Ortel Corp., vice president of marketing at ADC Fibermux Corp., and vice president of product management at Ungermann-Bass. Jordan is a graduate of the United States Naval Academy with a Bachelor of Science degree in nuclear physics. He can be reached at bob.jordan@strixsystems.com.

This was first published in July 2004

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