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Sidestepping wireless LAN money pits

Enterprise wireless LANs aren't just for early adopters anymore, but that doesn't mean they aren't expensive. One Gartner analyst says IT professionals need to consider a range of hidden costs before deploying a wireless network.

In this era of tight budgets, many companies are willing to experiment with wireless local area networks because they are inexpensive. Wireless access points are particularly affordable, selling for a little more than $100 on average, and many laptops come with 802.11b cards already installed. But that can be just a tiny portion of the overall cost. IT professionals need to consider a range of hidden costs before deploying their wireless networks, said Phillip Redman, a research director with Gartner Inc., the Stamford, Conn. research firm. Here Redman shines some light on the bills that may be lurking in the shadows of your network. Many companies deploy wireless LANs because they are so inexpensive, but are they really that cheap?
Phillip Redman: There are a lot of different elements to consider with technology in the enterprise: hardware, software and service costs are just a few. There are also administration costs [and] potential end users' costs. Even if a technology is free, there will still be operational costs for implementing the system and supporting the users. Wireless LAN access points may not be as expensive as servers, but there is still going to be an impact on the budget. What are some of the costs that businesses may not foresee?
Redman: There are four main elements. The infrastructure is a reliable up-front cost. There is the cost of implementation, ongoing costs for user support, adding new applications, operating systems and driver updates. With wireless LANs, we see a lot of self-support, where users change their own configurations if they cannot connect or assist other people in the office.

Costs also vary depending on the use of the network. Some businesses only use the wireless LAN as an addition to the wired network; others use it as their primary means of connection. If the network is for part-time use, support costs will be lower. If it is the main network, you will have to do more work for adding, changing and deleting users. The cost of downtime also increases if it is the primary network, and the network will need to be monitored more for congestion and interference. What do IT departments need to do to manage devices on a wireless LAN?
Redman: There is the initial implementation with whatever device you are using. You may have to add a modem or a PC card. Today, many laptops have PC cards integrated in them, which reduces costs. The battery life tends to be better -- as is the reception -- and you won't have to worry about drivers. If the PC card is not embedded, you will have to add drivers. Windows 2000 and XP have the drivers built in, but if you are using Windows 95 or Windows 98, this can be a real headache. How about on the network side?
Redman: On the network side, you have network administration issues to consider. If you have spaces where a lot of people are using the network at once, like a conference room or a classroom, you may need to look at load balancing. In some cases, you may have problems with roaming, as users move from one wireless LAN to another, particularly if the systems use different vendors. You will also need to look at security and authentication. We are starting to see a new wave of management software and wireless LAN switching that puts dumb access points on the network attached to switches that can be managed. Companies such as ReefEdge Inc. and Bluesocket Inc. have products that manage access points. How can companies better calculate total cost of ownership for wireless LANs?
Redman: IT departments need to look beyond capital costs. [New] staffing or training existing staff is important. You need to make sure that the technology is well understood and that there is support. Implementation costs need to be considered, as well as the impact on the network. You have to look for the hidden costs, not just write the check for the hardware. What kinds of problems can companies run into if they deploy without understanding the full TCO?
Redman: Budgets are already stretched to the limit. You are adding additional technology, and that will impact the budget. It makes sense to prepare for it beforehand; that way you can get the most out of the technology, rather than just putting it out there and then playing catch-up.


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