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Weighing the costs of wireless network management

Wireless devices may be getting less expensive, but the cost of managing those devices is rising. Before jumping into wireless network deployment, there are some things that SMBs need to know.

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Smaller organizations looking to set up LANs or wide area wireless networks need to weigh their vendor options carefully if they want to avoid paying too much in management costs over the long term, experts warn.

With mobile technology growing more mature, the price for some wireless hardware is dropping, making the technology more attractive to small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) with limited budgets. But analysts caution that the cost of supporting

To keep management costs low, according to experts, SMBs need to understand their wireless requirements and how those needs may grow or change over time. Then they should select the hardware and service providers that best fit into their vision.

"It's all about planning," said Bob Egan, president and founder of Mobile Competency, a North Providence, R.I.-based research firm. "If you plan for scalability, plan for security and use enterprise class gear from the start. You'll save on capital costs and, more importantly, you'll save on the residual management costs."

Carrier selection is key

The latest mobile applications allow users to do much more than just check e-mail and read or update data on a company network. Using handheld devices like BlackBerries, PDAs or Palm Pilots, today's mobile technology users can run applications that set off a chain of events -- such as order fulfillment -- that can affect any number of critical systems on a network.

Analysts said this growing complexity of mobile devices and applications is why the cost of managing wide area wireless networks is rising. Strategy Analysts Inc. forecast that the need to keep tabs on wireless hardware and to ensure the security of sensitive information will lead to a $5 billion market for mobile device management software by 2010, up from about $500 million today.

Finding the right mobile carrier provider can go a long way toward keeping the costs associated with wide area wireless networks low. When weighing carrier options, experts said it's important to note the different services they offer for managing users and information security, and if those services really fit the company's specific needs.

"Without good coverage, you're out of business," Egan said. "You have to really take a look at what operator is best suited to support both your speed and your latency requirements."

Companies that operate globally, or think they might one day, will want to make sure that the service provider supports global communications standards, such as standards like Global System for Mobile communication and Code Division Multiple Access.

"Even a small company is dealing globally today, and if you're going to have people traveling, you want them to be accessible and able to use the same devices," said Tim Scannell, president and chief analyst with Shoreline Research, a Quincy, Mass.-based consultancy that specializes in mobile and wireless technology.

SMBs should also consider if a potential carrier will provide emerging trends like hot spot roaming. With hot spot roaming, several service providers team up, allowing wireless users to jump onto the nearest wireless network -- whether it is a LAN or wide area network -- and ultimately gain access to their networks.

With hot spot roaming becoming the norm, Scannell said, users need to know if the service provider will enact the proper safety precautions and ensure that highly sensitive applications are run over secure wireless networks.

Consider managed WLAN services

SMBs worldwide are beginning to realize the benefits of wireless LANs. SMBs that deploy wireless networks report seeing benefits in higher productivity, application flexibility and worker satisfaction, according to the American Marketing Institute. The organization reports that the number of SMBs with deployed WLANs increased by 28% in 2004 and continues to rise.

Smaller customers with plans for WLAN deployment can cut management costs by considering hardware provider that offer managed services, said Michael Disabato, a service director with Midvale, Utah-based IT research firm Burton Group.

Disabato said the number of wireless access point vendors that offer managed services is small, but expected to grow significantly in the near future.

Chantry Networks, a Siemens company, provides hosted WLAN services. Trapeze Networks, another well-known access point provider, is currently considering getting into the business of hosting WLANs, Disabato said.

Midsized companies with a little more money to spend -- and with 10 or more access points to deploy -- should consider WLAN access points that are managed on site via Simple Network Management Protocol (SNMP), which governs network management and the monitoring of network devices and their functions.

Companies that offer SNMP-managed access points priced for midmarket users include Cisco, NetGear and D-Link Systems.

"Maybe they [SMBs] are missing a few of the features that large enterprises get," Disabato said of midmarket SNMP offerings. "But in the long run, I'd really have to question sometimes if the big enterprises are using those features."

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