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Assessing the enterprise wireless LAN for the new mobile workforce

Network engineers must assess the business and technology needs behind building a distributed enterprise wireless LAN for the new mobile workforce.

The exceptional growth of wireless local area networks (WLANs) in the enterprise has been reshaping the way companies...

view Wi-Fi. Gone are the days of "lobby Wi-Fi," characterized by a few access points (APs) designed for simple convenience and for occasional access and guests. A paradigm shift in worker behavior is motivating businesses to explore enterprise wireless LAN architectures where wireless rather than wired Ethernet is the primary network access technology.

Employee habits are evolving from working at a stationary computer to having mobile work options characterized by combinations of laptops, smartphones and tablets. This shift, which helps enable telecommuting and the rise of powerful consumer-oriented, app-centric devices, has empowered a growing subset of workers to use wireless as their primary or only means of access.

With the growing number of wireless devices and mobile workers, enterprises should be asking whether they really need to run Ethernet to workspaces if workers are using mobile devices as their primary computing tools.

Enterprise wireless LAN planning for a more robust and capable network

On average, companies expect to increase WLAN capacity by 80.3% by the end of 2013.

As app-centric devices continue to become a primary platform within enterprises, companies need to plan and provision for the accompanying network, security and use-case requirements. In the past, workers would generally use their smartphones to make calls, check email and send the occasional text message. Beyond improving ease of access for laptops, employees and IT departments alike had little cause to push for robust enterprise wireless LAN capabilities.

Fast-forward to the present -- mobile devices are not only used for email and Web browsing, but also for business applications including unified communications (UC) and social networking. In addition, consumerization and bring your own device (BYOD) have evolved from trends to lynchpins for enterprise mobility strategies. More and more employees are using their devices for both work and personal purposes, often simultaneously. The end result is that devices are required to multitask a complex mixture of apps with variable quality of service (QoS), security and capacity requirements on enterprise WLANs.

Compounding WLAN business requirements is the fact that a growing population of workers use wireless-only. Due to their location, type of work and/or primary computer being a mobile device, these workers connect to the enterprise using Wi-Fi or cellular networks only. Companies with wireless-only employees recognize this growth and expect this subset will comprise almost 12% of the workforce by 2013.

Developing a wireless LAN infrastructure upgrade

In the face of these trends and requirements, IT departments are being challenged to upgrade enterprise WLANs that were built on the "lobby" philosophy to a substantial infrastructure that can support the way employees and their devices really work today. Consequently, many IT professionals are in the position of having to address a variety of emerging and growing requirements through WLAN infrastructure. For example, on average, companies expect to increase WLAN capacity by 80.3% by the end of 2013, with mobile devices driving 73.5% of this growth.

Developing a strategy to upgrade or create a wireless LAN infrastructure that fits the needs of the new mobile workforce can seem daunting for IT professionals, especially when compared to the "one size fits all" nature of wired Ethernet. Fortunately, WLAN vendors are adapting their solutions to fit these WLAN business needs. Specifically, vendors are increasing the intelligence and capabilities of WLANs by pushing functionality like application and performance optimization, advanced security capabilities, device management and more to the WLAN controller and the access point itself. Commonly, vendors refer to this as a fat AP topology.

Cloud and application implications on the enterprise WLAN

To further address the increasingly distributed teleworking and mobile workforce, vendors are integrating the management of these capabilities into cloud/Software as a Service (SaaS) offerings. To the IT professional, this means that functionality that has traditionally been the domain of expensive, centralized appliances can now be had with less expensive, distributed WLAN architectures.

While companies differ in how mobile, wireless and distributed they are, the influence of mobile devices on the enterprise is ubiquitous, as is the effect on the WLAN. The iPhone, a device aimed squarely at the consumer, has become the most popular device in the enterprise, with 93% of companies now supporting it. Android devices are rising fast, as well. In five years, the iPhone and its consumer competitors have gone from nonexistent to eclipsing the enterprise-designed BlackBerry. The reasons for this are numerous and debatable, but they boil down to a single feature that has significant impact on the enterprise wireless LAN: applications.

Many companies have added app strategies that are tailored to this new breed of mobile device. In 2012, 32.1% of enterprises developed native apps for mobile platforms, or had apps developed for them, while8% developed HTML5 apps. An additional 10.7% are planning native apps in the next couple of years, and 24% plan to add HTML5 apps. The broader and more demanding the apps that workers use via their mobile devices, the greater the demands placed on the WLAN for capacity, stability and reliability.

Amongst various considerations, it is most important that companies realize they need a more powerful and better-designed wireless LAN infrastructure to address the needs of their growing WLAN and WLAN-only users. In particular, there needs to be more consideration for the growing requirements of mobile devices and their apps. It is a short step from facing the need to develop a truly ubiquitous and robust enterprise WLAN to the idea of having the WLAN be the default mode of access for everyone.

About the author:
Philip Clarke is a Research Analyst at Nemertes Research, where he is a co-leader of the Wireless and Mobility research track, advises clients on wireless topics, writes key trends and thought leadership reports, conducts statistical analysis and develops research reports.

Read the second part of this series where we discuss benefits of WLAN as the primary access network.

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This was last published in December 2012

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