Wireless solutions: the sky’s the limit

Wireless LANs have been sprouting up in offices, shops and boardrooms for some time, but the technology continues to evolve rapidly. What’s coming is the next wave of Wi-Fi.

“In the enterprise market, the fat access point wave has subsided,” says Bell Canada director of wireless solutions Andrew Mitchell. “It died 18 months ago, and the desire for wireless access in the boardroom has long disappeared.”

Wireless networking equipment is still a hot commodity, of course, but the point is that it is a commodity. According to Infonetics Research, worldwide wireless networking sales reached 25 million units shipped last year, a 39 per cent increase over 2004. However, revenues only rose 10 per cent, a sign the traditional wireless market is becoming saturated.

“In addition to the wide adoption, I think we’re starting to see it go deeper,” says Forrester Research vice-president Ellen Daley. “Companies are saying, ‘We need more applications, and we need to take this technology more seriously.’”

This has stimulated both a new round of technology acquisitions and a spirited conversation on how the technology should be deployed.

“The conversation between vendors and buyers has shifted from ‘wireless is a good thing,’ which most people agree about, to how it can be extended and what to layer on top of it,” says Info-Tech research analyst Carmi Levy. “Enterprises are looking to put mobile tools in the hands of their employees, but the way they want to do that requires some rethinking of the infrastructures.”

Following transition
The last wave of enterprise wireless networking marched in parallel with the transition from desktop to notebook systems in company offices. The nomadic kind of mobility required by a notebook user could be guaranteed by a quick trip to the nearest computer store and an $80 purchase of a consumer wireless router.

“If you look at where computers are going, you’re seeing more and more notebooks and fewer desktops in offices,” says Steve Visconti, director of wireless for Cisco Systems’ worldwide channels organization. “Historically, the enterprise WLAN grew up on these autonomous access points.”

However, nomadic mobility only makes sense if you sit and work at one location, and then move to another. Wireless routers and access points don’t have to be particularly quick on the uptake when worker mobility is a question of moving intermittently from desk to desk, but things have changed.

“With a notebook, you close the lid and move,” says Ashok Sharaf, director of product marketing at Trapeze Networks, a Pleasanton, Calif.-based OEM manufacturer of wireless networking equipment. “There’s an evolution from that to true session mobility. That means that the network technology has to address issues like latency and coverage in ways that it didn’t before.”

Levy notes the omnipresence of handheld devices, such as Palms and BlackBerries, in the enterprise and the corresponding deployment of everything from customer relationship management to sales automation applications to workers who are not only road warriors, but physically mobile within the office environment. “The idea is to deploy sophisticated applications to all kinds of mobile devices that give employees an edge,” Levy says. “It’s all about edge. The more applications you can deploy on a phone or handheld, and the more you can mobilize, the better the edge you have.”

Having that edge means pushing access to applications to the workers who, more often than not, are probably not sitting contentedly at their desks. Cisco’s Visconti notes that, in carpeted offices, workers typically spend 70 per cent of their time away from their desks. That means the emphasis has had to shift from the employee finding the network to the network finding the employee. Access has had to become pervasive.

“Companies know that’s the key to productivity now,” Visconti says. “It’s access to business applications wherever you need them.”

Voice over WLAN is a particularly big part of that. Revenues from sales of Wi-Fi telephones surged 76 per cent last year, according to Infonetics, to reach US$102.5 million. By 2009, sales will reach almost US$1.9 billion. “There’s a lot of pent-up demand for VoWLAN, and particularly for dual-mode cellular and wireless VoIP phones,” Daley says. “There’s a pent-up demand because of a fear and concern about wireless phone costs. Companies are saying that ‘we see people using their cell phones in office hallways,’ and they’re interested in reducing those costs.”

System integrators are poised to meet the demand, as both IP voice and wireless networking have begun to walk in lock-step. Companies see substantial benefits in the convergence. “That’s especially true since 2005, when voice over IP went over that crest,” says Ted Smith, vice-president of sales at Vancouver-based system integrator DTM Systems. “As organizations lay out wireless technology, and as they need access to data and people, the question becomes ‘How do I reach everyone at once?’”

Looking to upgrade
With that kind of interest, enterprise managers are considering upgrades, even if their initial wireless equipment investments are only a couple of years old. Even more than handheld applications, voice is particularly sensitive to latency and quality of service issues. While few people would make much of a fuss over waiting for e-mail to download while they walk through coverage holes, or wait for a traditional fat access point (AP) to complete its authentication routine, voice and real-time applications are another story.

“When you look at traditional, fat APs, it just takes too long to hand off and authenticate from one AP to the next,” Nortel Networks mobility solutions specialist Kevin Marshall says. “That’s not good for voice, and it’s not good for handheld devices that don’t have the horsepower to provide the full authentication that you do with notebooks.”

It’s all a fairly straightforward equation that has helped drive the intelligence necessary for client authentication from the APs to switches and centralize management. The points of access might be distributed, but they don’t ask mobile devices to submit to authentication as they pass from one thin AP to the next; they carry the session with them. “The shift from stand alone fat APs to thin APs allows for a more efficient hand off,” Marshall says. “With a thin AP, you’re just going from one port to another. From a security perspective, the client is already authenticated.”

Despite the inherent complexity in deploying a large number of APs — and pervasive coverage requires more than a router in the board room — it is greatly mitigated by the benefit of consolidating management in a central location. The advantages are legion, from the ability to locate wireless assets like medical equipment in a hospital network, to sniffing out rogue APs and wireless routers that might compromise network security.

With that in mind, it’s hardly surprising that the next wave of enterprise wireless is picking up momentum. Though they only represent 19 per cent of the wireless market, according to Infonetics, sales of the switches and controllers necessary to support thin AP infrastructures are on a phenomenal growth curve. Unit shipments soared 154 per cent last year, and revenues were up 93 per cent in the same period. By 2009, the firm expects wireless switches and controllers to account for up to 44 per cent of the market.

With the shift has come an immense opportunity for system integrators and resellers. While just about anyone with a modicum of computer experience can plug a $80 wireless-G router into a network drop, setting up a system of centrally managed thin APs requires considerably more expertise. “It’s an integration issue,” Daley says. “The focus is on manageability and security. It’s also an outsourcing issue. Make no mistake, this is something that system integrators — particularly the large ones — know they have to take seriously.”

That’s particularly the case given the move away from a strictly hardware-to-wetware model that joins the network to employees with laptops and handhelds, to a hardware-to-hardware model. The real promise of enterprise wireless, and the real opportunity for system integrators, is its potential to connect all the data in an organization to the network all the time. Pervasive networking means pervasive access to business process information from the factory floor to retailers’ shelves.

Mitchell has noted a growing interest in the larger retail and manufacturing companies in connecting everything from real-time barcode scanners to RFID sensors to a wireless network. “We have these new ways of communicating, collaborating and collecting data, but that’s not enough,” Mitchell says.

“It all requires integration. Here’s an open opportunity for SIs that are capable of providing it. It’s not just new business applications, but new ways of using them.”

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