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Wireless Ethernet: Just another (yawn) tool in my toolbox

No matter how I try, I just can't get excited about Wireless networks. Every time someone tells me about how exciting mobile computing is, I get an attack of the yawns.

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No matter how I try, I just can't get excited about Wireless networks. Every time someone tells me about how exciting mobile computing is, I get an attack of the yawns. In fact, feel a good nap is time better spent.

I first played with a wireless network in 1997 (gadzooks, that was five years ago!). Digital Equipment Corporation (if you remember them) had just released their wireless solution, and it was truly revolutionary. You had up to 2M bits of shared bandwidth. That was excellent, because we were only using switches in the backbones then and the average user got about 1M bit of bandwidth in real life.

We did a bit of testing, and basically came up with the conclusion that wireless Ethernet was about one-fifth the speed of our wired Ethernet. Today's wireless solutions get about 5M bit/sec (some of the time, at least). Your average desk user is getting about 20M bit/sec, so the ratio is about the same. I got some users to do a bit of testing too. The actual experience was quite acceptable; users could print, send e-mail and access applications at what was perceived to be the same performance as wired Ethernet.

Well, we were all VERY EXCITED about this. As a reseller of network equipment, our company was convinced that everyone would want this. A huge marketing opportunity! We embarked on a program to promote wireless networks to all our customers, and invested quite a bit of cash and time to develop our campaign. We made brochures, wrote white papers and flew around the country promoting it.

Needless to say, the whole thing went "straight to video." You see, when it came down to it, no one cared. In fact, we couldn't even get customers interested in it. What I found was that people just don't want their computers to be mobile. To be exact, REAL PEOPLE don't want their computers to be mobile.

Why? Well, here is what Dr.. Network thinks:

  • We work around the fact that our computers are plugged in, and we are used to that. It would take a lot for us to change habits built up over years. (Think carefully about that before you flame me....)
  • Ever had a meeting where someone brings their notebook and then spends the whole meeting using it? During our pilot, I gave a planning session to people who had wireless networking. They spend the whole time checking e-mail and writing documents. Very annoying. (The presentation was on wireless networking, pretty funny ironic, hey?)
  • The converse is also true. It's obvious when someone is not savvy with his PC when he is sitting right next to someone who can really make it sing. As a result, a lot of people refused to use wireless because they would look stupid.
  • It didn't work all that well. We had to put a lot of wireless base stations in to cover an area properly, and they cost a lot of money.
  • And those aerials got in the way. Confession time: I must admit that modern aerials are actually quite livable. Some notebook manufacturers are actually building them into the notebook.
  • Security. Gosh, how many times have I heard someone tubthumping about wireless security?
  • It cost a heck of a lot. Even today, it still costs some multiples more than wired Ethernet.

Let's look at that last one more carefully. Each wireless base station provides coverage for an area, but the signal degrades quickly when it goes through something solid.

Nerdy Guy: So, how many base stations do I need?

Dr. Network: Well, usually about three for a good-sized building floor. You should probably get at least three or four.

Nerdy Guy: I thought they covered a 300-ft radius?

Dr. Network: They do, if there's nothing in the way. Nothing stops wireless Ethernet better than an elevator shaft.

Nerdy Guy: But doesn't the floor above cover the floor below?

Dr. Network: Sometimes. It depends on how much iron is in the concrete.

Nerdy Guy: But why four units?

Dr. Network: Because of performance. Wireless Ethernet is a shared medium, so everyone gets to share the bandwidth. And don't be misled, 802.11 doesn't even get close to 10M bytes like the brochure says. Typically it's about 5M bytes.

Nerdy Guy: Hey, that gets really expensive then....

Dr. Network: I told you so (really big smile).

That said, people like you and me just love the idea of mobile computing. Geeks, nerds and technophiles the world over will be buying wireless networks for their homes in droves. Many of them live in rented accommodations and can't put in permanent wires, and they are often young with lots of disposable cash. No problem, just use wireless. Bingo, Internet access in the kitchen.

The problem is that geeks and nerds represent only about 3% of the whole marketplace. That's not a bad niche market, but nothing more than that. Some of the telcos are talking about using wireless as a local loop technology, but that will have a limited impact.

But that is why the media gets excited about it. The media feeds off us nerds, they listen to what we say is cool, and then replay it. It simply gets louder when it's repeated. Just for clarity, wireless is a good tool. But it's just another tool in my toolbox; it isn't going to revolutionize the world.

Meet searchNetworking's Network Administration expert, Greg Ferro.

Do you agree with Greg? Let him know in the Dr. Network Forum.

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