With the increased reliance on telecommuters, the shift towards Web-based and virtual applications, and the elimination of satellite data and IT centers, you would think network planners have enough on their plate in terms of future WAN worries.
Not so, if current trends are any indication. Add the rising use of discrete mobile technologies to that list of anxieties, especially the use of wireless machine-to-machine (M2M) transmitters and active tags that automatically channel quick bursts of data over wireless and wired networks. These technologies are being used in a variety of industry segments, especially in healthcare where they are integral part real-time location systems (RTLS) used primarily for asset tracking and resource planning.
Hospitals are attracted to wireless RTLS has because of its very positive ROI. These systems can be used to improve patient care, reduce costs associated with missing equipment and rentals, improve the physical security of a facility, and even limit the liabilities related to medical errors and delays in staff response. More than 81% of the hospitals in the U.S. already have 802.11 networks installed, so the communications infrastructure for Wi-Fi-based RTLS. Is already there, says market researcher Frost & Sullivan.
The wireless M2M industry is, in fact, growing at a healthy clip despite the adverse economy, says Alex Brisbourne, president and COO of Kore Telematics, an M2M solutions provider. Kore's business has been growing at about 10% per quarter, he said, as customers look to track people as well as physical assets and applications focus on where assets should and shouldn't be within an organization.
"People are increasingly being regarded in the generic sense as a critical asset, especially in terms of safety and security," he explained.
Industry segments besides healthcare that are seeing a steady demand for M2M technologies include: Fleet management (for automatic vehicle location (AVL) and tracking), retail point of sale (POS) and vending machines, and remote electronic signage, Brisbourne points out.
In most cases, high-speed cellular networks are the main thoroughfare for remote M2M communications traffic since cellular is so readily available and relatively reliable applications utilized for machine-to-machine (M2M) applications since they can be used to improve productivity and operational efficiencies throughout the supply chain.
Within the confines of a building or across corporate campuses, however, traditional Wi-Fi may be the primary wireless conduit, since the architectures may already be in place and most are robust enough to handle the additional data traffic.
As the information wends its way through a company's networks and associated communications pipelines, however, the increased traffic could put a strain on the existing WAN infrastructure, creating an acute need for better WAN optimization and performance tools.
In fact, the demand for WAN optimization appliances is apparently booming, with the market for such devices increasing 28% last year over 2007 figures, notes Infonetics Research. Leading vendors in this space include Cisco, Blue Coat and Riverbed.
Users may be reluctant to make any drastic changes in their WAN structure, though, especially if the current systems are still working pretty well.
The Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, for example, has been involved in both passive and active RFID asset tracking for nearly three years and has yet to see the need for WAN accelerators, notes Mark Olson, manager of IS security at the hospital. A dedicated Wi-Fi network is used now to track roughly 200 devices, he said, adding that the network might be taxed if that number were doubled or tripled.
Like other hospitals, Beth Israel is more concerned with adapting the network to handle such things as the demands of high bandwidth applications. "In our world, it is mostly about moving large data sets for research or moving large images related to radiology," points out Olson. In these situations, the solution is to migrate to a transparent LAN service (TLS) to interconnect networks.
Firewalls are another top concern at Beth Israel, especially at WAN aggregation points where intrusion protection systems (IPS) might fail, allowing viruses to propagate throughout the network. Social networking has also increased traffic and security concerns, especially as younger staff members rely in instant messaging, Twittering and other methods to communicate.
There is always some level of user complaints associated with network performance and reliability, says Olson, although the hospital has not yet seen the need for WAN accelerator to accommodate the pumped up traffic volume. In fact, Beth Israel hasn't added any new performance management products to its Cisco 'classic network design' in almost six years.
"We monitor raw circuit saturation or volume," he added. "If performance is a problem we may then go to a different product set."