In order to accommodate the networking needs of their mobile users, many companies are trading in their all-wired networks for newer hybrid environments that mix both wired and wireless technologies.
February 1, 2001
We are currently seeing a major turn towards the implementation of wireless systems in office and campus environments. As a result, the traditional 100-per-cent wired network environment is slowly giving way to one that combines both wired and wireless technologies.
To understand why wireless networks are becoming more popular, you have only to look at the evolution of the way people access information and make a short-term prediction on how they will want to access it in the future.
Everyone is happy with the concept of wired networks — a scenario in which every desktop has a network access jack that provides a range of speed and technology access types. The majority of people still use desktop computers which, by their very nature, are not prone to movement (unless you are fairly strong and determined). Cabling plants have evolved to increase the power of the connection at the desktop, with 10/100 Ethernet as the technology of choice for many organizations.
Wireless local area networks (LANs) are not new. Yet, these networks have not really taken off in the office environment, due to speed limitations and the fact that most people did not previously have the need for mobile network access. Wireless LANs have taken off in the multi-office or campus environment, and particularly in educational institutions, where highly mobile faculties and student bodies are well-suited to wireless networking. As business moves toward greater mobility, office environments are increasingly taking on the attributes of a campus, and the demand for wireless is expected to increase accordingly.
The wireless world has changed during the past year. The applications for wireless networks have increased and more companies and organizations see wireless as their connection method of choice.
Wireless, like Ethernet, is designed as a shared bandwidth technology. Users connect through a NIC (Network Interface Card) to a base station, which provides the coverage through an aerial to users within range. Until 2000, these shared systems offered around 1.5 megabits per second (Mbps) of bandwidth. In reality, due to interference and distance, many users would only get one-third of this available bandwidth and then have to share it with others. In other words, wireless did not offer anywhere near the performance of a wired network. In addition, wireless systems did not have the technology available to segment bandwidth and increase performance the way wired switches and routers could.
In 2000, the performance of wireless networks moved up to 11 Mbps. This increase in performance prompted many people to think seriously about wireless systems. It was now possible to connect a typical desktop user to a wireless network and give that person access to all of the applications and services required.
An increasing number of office and campus environments were the early adopters and greatest fans of wireless systems. Today, the two largest users of wireless networks are education and healthcare institutions. Both ‘industries’ have the same traits of a mobile workforce: a transient environment and the need to move computing services around on short notice. These types of institutions are also moving more and more of their daily activities to computer-based systems, and putting a high priority on ensuring that information or data can be accessed by the right people, at the right time, with the least possible inconvenience and outside IT assistance.
Wireless computing became the “dream come true” for the mobile workforce with high performance connections and complete mobility and flexibility. In addition, IT assistance was not required when additions, moves and changes were done. Re-patching a wireless network became unnecessary, which is a huge advantage when a variety of people are moving to many different locations every day.
EMERGING HYBRID NETWORKS
All of this has resulted in the emergence of some very large hybrid wired and wireless networks. Many universities offer completely wireless campuses, with the wired portion of the network used for servers, Internet connections and other devices such as printers.
Hospitals see wireless as a necessary technology for mobile doctors, nurses and patients, and as an alternative to the time and trouble it takes to wire hospital wards. With more and more of our medical information being stored electronically, it has become imperative to provide a mobile and flexible way to access these records. With a laptop and a wireless NIC, surgeons and other hospital personnel can now access this information from anywhere in the hospital.
But wires are still required, as the wireless base stations need to interconnect; this is accomplished using standard Ethernet cabling. A wireless network takes advantage of the existing cabling plant, and allows the distribution of wireless base stations (access points) on the ends of 10 Mbps Ethernet cables. The base-stations are about the size of a smoke detector and can be fitted to walls or ceilings.
One of the key advantages that some vendors bring is the ability to power the base station from the Ethernet cable, which means that no additional or external power supplies or power outlets are needed. Therefore, wherever you have an Ethernet cable, you can have a wireless access point that can service many users. This feature is invaluable in the deployment of wireless LANs, as you do not find many power outlets in ceilings or six feet up a wall (where you need to put your access point to maximize coverage). The lack of power requirement reduces the potential for the two networks in a hybrid LAN to clash, especially as the wireless network still relies on the wired infrastructure for inter-communications.
Eleven Mbps is only the start for wireless, as 2001 will bring us the new 54 Mbps standard and allow us to stack more access points to support more users. Wireless is also going to begin to take on many of the characteristics of wired switches and routers, with advanced traffic prioritization and control features. In other words, a wireless network will be as capable as a wired alternative.
However, there are many questions about wireless networks that still require answers: Will wireless networks become the dominant connection method in LANs? Will the wired networks already in place become completely redundant? Will wireless networks remove the need for additional cabling investment in the future? The answer to wireless domination could well be yes, but not for a long period of time.
As mentioned, certain environments — such as healthcare — suit wireless. In addition, buildings that are difficult and expensive to wire are also excellent candidates for wireless implementations. But for the highest bandwidth demands — guaranteed video, for example — wired still wins, with its 100 Mbps speed (compared to the current maximum of 54 Mbps for wireless).
Companies have also invested millions of dollars in their existing cabling plants and the communications equipment that connects to it. They are comfortable in a wired environment, so the need (or desire) to change it is not as strong in companies that do not have an obvious and overriding requirement.
Recent research shows that around 15 per cent of companies have some wireless capabilities, and that over 50 per cent of CIOs are looking to implement a wireless system in the near- to mid-term. So, the desire is out there, and the wireless world is going to be exploited in many areas of business.
THREAT OR OPPORTUNITY?
Yet, the growth in wireless does not pose a threat to cabling or cabling companies; it presents an opportunity. Wireless networks, and the need to implement hybrid systems, will become a potential source of revenue for cabling companies and will allow cabling companies to compete with the big service providers in campus, and even remote, networks.
We are seeing a major trend towards metropolitan area wireless networks, with building-to-building solutions becoming an increasingly attractive alternative to expensive leased
lines. Companies are connecting buildings across town, and even in different towns, through high-speed wireless systems — building hybrid wired, wireless and long distance networks by themselves. These systems can be invaluable in rural areas, where the ability to run wiring between buildings or sites is impractical. In fact, farms, construction sites, oil drilling plants, and even rural communities need access to information, but often do not have the infrastructure to support the connectivity. In North America, we are seeing low-income schools leverage wireless to offer community Internet access, closing the digital divide through the sensible use of wireless computing.
Experts in connecting users together (the cabling companies) could well add another string to their bows and become wireless experts. Wireless networks still need designing, they still need maintaining, and they need the certification and testing that any wired network would need. Today, there is little certification or guarantee of wireless networks in buildings — an opportunity for the wired experts to lend some assistance to the wireless world.
As the need for total mobility increases in 2001, we are going to see wireless technology becoming more involved and more important to a wider variety of customers. We will also experience major revenue and market penetration opportunities for companies that appreciate the benefits of hybrid networks and maximize the coupling of the wireless and wired environments.CS
Kelly Kanellakis is Director of Technology for Enterasys Networks Canada, a leading innovator in both wired and wireless business communications networks. Mr. Kanellakis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Eleven Mbps is only the start for wireless, as 2001 will bring us the new 54 Mbps standard and allow us to stack more access points to support more users.