Do campus network Ethernet jacks belong with polar bears and gorillas on the list of endangered species? Although wired networking isn't likely to die off, many networking pros believe wireless local area networks (WLANs) will eventually surpass wired as the primary means of enterprise connectivity. And an all-wireless enterprise will need WLAN management tools which can ensure that WLAN performance and reliability is equal to wired.
"Wireless is going to be the primary or default access for everybody over the next few years," said Craig Mathias, principal of consultancy and testing firm Farpoint Group. "There isn't so much a challenge with security anymore. That's why you see the discussion moving to [WLAN] performance and management."
Few, if any, technological hurdles remain for an all-wireless enterprise. WLAN infrastructure costs are coming down and capabilities continue to improve, Mathias said. The ratification of 802.11n last year catapulted WLANs onto the as-good-as-wired plane, he said, and wireless adapters often come free with laptops.
"The expectation is that there will be wireless available. I'll be honest: My kids don't know what an RJ-45 jack looks like," said Tim Zimmerman, principal analyst at Gartner Inc. "I talk to a lot of higher education [institutions] and universities, and it's funny to hear them on their tech support calls…. Students are on the phone talking to them about the quality of the wireless signal and the fact that they get poor throughput, and they're sitting five feet away from a 10/100 [Ethernet] jack."
In the showdown between wired and wireless networking, wired will still have its place in campus networks, as the two technologies have "a fundamental interdependency," Mathias said. Quality wireless networking needs at least a gigabit backbone, he said, and gigabit wireless is only in its infancy. The Wireless Gigabit Alliance (WiGig) recently announced that it has opened its technology to vendors to develop devices that meet the new high-speed, short-range standard.
But it won't be long before 802.11n speeds seem quaint, Mathias said, predicting that the next few years will reveal 20 Gbps wireless. Meanwhile, the all-wireless enterprise will become commonplace in the next 12 to 36 months, as 70% of new clients coming on the network in the next year will be wireless, Zimmerman predicted recently at Gartner's Wireless, Networking & Communications Summit 2010 in San Diego.
"We'll be moving to a wireless by default, wired by exception [approach]," said Gartner vice president David A. Willis in his keynote address at the conference last month.
WLAN management tools mitigate RF interference
How networking pros tackle WLAN management issues such as radio frequency (RF) interference will determine the success of the all-wireless enterprise, according to David Callisch, vice president of marketing for Ruckus Wireless, which addresses WLAN performance issues with its patented beamforming technology.
Cisco Systems recently announced a new series of APs with its CleanAir technology, which claims to detect hard-to-find RF interference issues, locate their exact locations and automatically adjust the network equipment to minimize the problem.
About 80% of wireless implementations done in the next 18 months are "going to be obsolete because they're done wrong," Zimmerman said, naming environmental noise levels as a major contributor to poor WLAN performance.
"The reason why wireless has never been the primary means of connectivity used to be security," Callisch said. "Now, it's reliability, and until … wireless can be predictable … [it] is still going to be wired's stepchild."
WLAN performance, success varies among enterprises
Once users gain access to a WLAN network, an all-wireless enterprise is almost an inevitability. After Brandeis University, in Waltham, Mass., deployed its first campus-wide WLAN in 2005, students began to bring more wireless devices to school, and they came to expect uncompromised connectivity everywhere, according to John Turner, director of networks and systems at Brandeis.
"People had abandoned the wired network. Students these days don't know what Ethernet is. They just have 'wireless Internet,' as they call it," Turner said. "This [expectation] was weighing heavily on us to start thinking, 'OK, [wireless] is a primary network for these guys,' and [we have to] worry about coverage holes, speed and things like that."
Although 802.11n was still in draft form when he evaluated it three years ago, Turner was confident it would improve WLAN performance and management sufficiently to ensure that wireless could be the primary network for newer buildings. Next year, the older 802.11a/b/g buildings will become 11n.
Hitting 802.11n speeds in the new dorms and academic buildings has been a "transformative experience," Turner said. He expects he can remove 200 switches, save at least $190,000 annually in energy costs and have Ethernet jacks installed only by request.
Reliable WLAN performance means "good uniform coverage and dual radio deployment," said Turner, who manages his 1,000 Aruba Networks APs with four of the vendor's controllers. He expects to add 700 APs and two more controllers next year, handling WLAN management with Aruba's AirWave software. The platform does health checks on wired and WLAN equipment performance in addition to tracking mobile devices.
"We've never had visibility into our wired network like we have into our wireless network with AirWave," Turner said.
But other enterprises continue to struggle with WLAN management and WLAN performance, especially when finicky clients exasperate even patient and determined networking pros.
A global pharmaceutical company based on the West Coast recently grew its WLAN from a few conference room hotspots to 1,500 soon-to-be all 802.11n, according to Michael McDevitt, a principal network engineer. He has struggled with wireless connectivity since the network went into production. Some clients and APs just gave each other the silent treatment -- even when placed mere inches from each other, he said.
"One thing that caught us off guard was the immaturity of the wireless technology in the laptops…. [Clients] would just not maintain a connection," McDevitt said. He has pleaded with Intel and Hewlett-Packard to improve their chipsets and software.
The problem just gets more complicated as more devices come online at the company, said McDevitt's colleague, lead network architect James Whiteley. About 70% of user devices were wired five years ago, he said. Now, 82% of user devices are laptops, and the networking team must also support non-computer wireless devices, such as a wireless sensor for asset management in a supply freezer and robots on the manufacturing floor.
"What people fail to recognize is the ubiquity and ease of a wireless connection is not trivial," McDevitt said. "The initial deployment was just for people to go into the conference rooms and get a wireless connection. It wasn't designed for this other stuff…. The network really didn't keep up. We tried, but it's been tough."
Let us know what you think about the story; email: Jessica Scarpati, News Writer