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Enterprises Weigh Benefits of Wireless Networks

At one time, the gap between wireless and wired network capabilities was so vast that wireless networks were used only on rare occasions. That has been changing recently, according to industry watchers.

“A growing number of enterprises are taking a look at whether a wired or a wireless network offers them the best networking option,” said Carmi Levy, an industry analyst with market research firm InfoTech Research Group.

A few recent technical advances have made wireless LANs (WLANs) more attractive. Support for the 802.11g standard enabled vendors to boost the networking option’s top speed to 54 Mbps. “In most cases, users work with office productivity software that does not require a huge amount of bandwidth,” said Craig Mathias, principal at market research firm Farpoint Group.

Eliminating Vulnerabilities

The first releases of WLAN devices included glaring security holes, which centered mainly on 802.11’s encryption techniques, dubbed Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP). It was weak and susceptible to outside intrusion. When granting network access, WEP WLANs rely on Service Set Identifiers (SSIDs) to verify each network component, and individual device information can be checked in one of two ways.

The first, open authentication, requires that a device supply a known SSID in order to gain network access. One problem with this is that an access point (basically, the entry point and gatekeeper to the network) constantly broadcasts its SSID, so intruders can detect its presence with devices such as network analyzers and use that information to enter the network.

The second verification technique, shared-key authentication, forces each access point to send each client a challenge test packet that it must encrypt and return to the access point in the proper format. If the client has no encryption key or the wrong one, the authentication attempt fails, and the client will not be let into the network. WEP’s shared key authentication scheme was also not strong enough to keep hackers out of wireless networks.

To address the encryption problems, vendors developed a new security standard, Wireless Protected Access (WPA), and products conforming to it are now easy to find.

Plummeting Pricing

In addition to standards advances, WLAN product pricing has been dropping as the networks have become more popular. A growing number of devices now come with integrated WLAN adapters, so companies only have to pay for network access points.

“I assumed laptops would include integrated WLAN connections, but I have been surprised that so many PDAs now also have them,” Farpoint Group’s Mathias told TechNewsWorld.

Depending on the configuration, wireless enterprise networks can be cheaper to deploy than wired ones. Savings are possible because a company does not have to deploy any physical cabling, which can be expensive and difficult to install.

Wireless network designs fit in with employee work patterns. “You don’t find employees chained to desks any more,” noted Farpoint Group’s Mathias. “They roam about the office, moving from one location to another.”

Get of the Office, Now

Increasingly, companies are sending employees out of the office to meet face-to-face with customers and suppliers. WLANs can help these traveling executives stay in touch with the main office. “Many companies are opening up their wireless LANs to visitors who need Internet access,” InfoTech Research Group’ Levy told TechNewsWorld.

Not everyone agrees that the case for WLANs is simple to make. WLAN access is not as common as wired connection in most corporations. “Companies have a large base of wired connections and want to maximize their use of those investments through additional expansion,” said Rachna Ahlawat, a research director at Gartner Group.

While WLAN hardware may cost less than wired links, the former requires more add-on functions than the latter. Wired networks are secure right out of the box while enterprises have to invest time, money and manpower to make sure that their wireless connections are safe.

Interfering With Network Throughput

Wireless connections do not require cabling, but they can be difficult to deploy, because IT departments have to address a wide range of bandwidth contention and interference issues. WLAN transmission rates can vary, sometimes quite dramatically, because of the thickness of cubicle walls, the placement of microwave ovens, the power of WLAN antennae and any overlap from neighboring networks. Since interference issues tend to be site specific, companies often need to turn to wireless LAN systems integrators for help in setting up their networks. This requirement increases network costs.

Add-on expenses are more likely with WLANs than with wired LANS. Because users freely connect to wireless networks, traffic patterns can quickly be altered. With traffic patterns changing, companies need to invest in management tools to monitor performance, and in additional equipment to unplug any network bottlenecks.

Convergence is also becoming more common in enterprise networks. Rather than separate networks, corporations are trying to place data, voice and video content on a single IP network. As Voice over IP (VoIP) makes its way into more corporations, questions arise about WLAN’s ability to support it. The 54 Mbps of bandwidth now available may be sufficient for office productivity applications, but could fall short of adequately supporting voice applications. This may be only a temporary hurdle because 100 Mbps WLAN products are beginning to make their way out of the standards development phrase into vendors’ products.

As the debate between WLANs and wired networks picks up, there does seem to be a general movement toward wireless technology. “In the 1980s, companies debated the benefits of cell phones,” concluded InfoTech Research Group’ Levy. “Today, no one would go back to their wired phone, and I expect that eventually companies will feel the same way about wireless LANs.”

This story was originally published on Oct. 21, 2005, and is brought to you today as part of our Best of ECT News series.

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