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WLAN's caffeine rush

In front of wireless standards such as 2.5G, WAP, and Bluetooth, WLAN technology is already firmly entrenched in the promised land: Gartner Group's concept of the Slope of Enlightenment.

My recent trip to Gartner Group's Networking Beyond the Enterprise conference in San Francisco seemed, at one point, to be solidly within the grip of the enterprise.

Like many networking professionals, coffee is my best friend, and while looking for an espresso supply outside my hotel, I counted no less than three (3) Starbucks stores within two (2) city blocks before finding a single (1) ATM.

This struck me as an interesting future extension of the enterprise, given Starbucks' widely-heralded 2001 deal with MobileStar to offer wireless 802.11b access to customers at all of its North American outlets; business executives on the go will have not only the Internet but conceivably the full run of the company LAN as well through virtual private network (VPN) technology.

What could be better evidence of the maturity of the wireless LAN (WLAN) than that? One of the nation's most inescapable chains will soon have made the WLAN equally inescapable.

It was unsurprising, therefore, to discover that on Gartner's notorious Hype Cycle, which uses a rough sine wave to illustrate how any given class of technology is born, is hyped, is often dismissed as "unhypeworthy," and is finally adopted, WLANs occupy the lead position in terms of maturity.

In front of wireless standards such as 2.5G, WAP, and Bluetooth, WLAN technology is already firmly entrenched in the promised land: Gartner's concept of the Slope of Enlightenment. This is an abstract spot in the time/space continuum where vendors, analysts, the media and customers have finally shrugged off initial optimism/pessimism and come to grips with how a given technology can usefully be implemented in the real world.

Gartner's Slope of Enlightenment, in case you're wondering, comes after the Trough of Disillusionment and before it, the Peak of Inflated Expectations, and no, I am not making this up.

Gartner also expects that inside two years, WLANs will have entered the final phase of hype, the Plateau of Productivity: no new hype, just steady use.

This Zenlike bliss, if it's ever achieved, will no doubt come partially as a result of evolutionary protocol developments in the wireless LAN arena. While 802.11b offers classic Ethernet performance at a rough maximum throughput of 11 Mbits/sec., it certainly has its shortcomings, and new variations of the 802.11 standard are well underway to address these.

For instance: bandwidth. WLAN technology is currently far slower than its cabled counterpart, and while the novelty of wireless access has made it appealing anyway, it's going to need a little more horsepower if it's going to receive ubiquitous adoption.

Currently, attempts are being made to codify 802.11g, the next logical successor to the 802.11b standard. 802.11g will offer twice the throughput and quality of service (QoS) functionality as well, leaving it much better suited than today's WLANs for performance-intensive applications such as streaming media and voice over IP while remaining in the same 2.4 Ghz band as 802.11b.

At the heart of the current 802.11g controversy is the question of which underlying technology will be responsible for those QoS features. Two companies, Texas Instruments and Intersil, appear to have intriguingly different and completely incompatible perspectives on how to go about achieving these goals. Let's hope, for the sake of the protocol that these are reconciled in short order.

Further out on the horizon is the Fast Ethernet-competitive 802.11a, probably the most advanced form of wireless LAN undergoing serious development today (though rivaled by the European HiperLAN II standard). 802.11a promises a blistering 54 Mbits/sec. bandwidth. That's right -- five times faster than today's 802.11b standard and definitely not, to paraphrase an Oldsmobile slogan, your father's wireless LAN.


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