Tom Watson at distributor Mayflex says the hottest technology in local area networking over the last few years has undoubtedly been wireless.
Its success can be traced to 1999 with the adoption of the IEEE 802.11b standard, supported by Wi-Fi. This gave the market a product with viable bandwidth, together with assurance of vendor interoperability. Since its inception, wireless has not looked back and today most LAN’s have a wireless component supporting increased speeds, which have gone from 11Mpbs to 54Mbps (108Mbps using so-called ‘turbo’ modes) with the newer 802.11a and g standards.
Bandwidths of this scale are quite capable of supporting twenty plus wireless clients carrying out standard MS applications, email and Internet access. Seen together with wireless’s inherent advantages of low cost, flexible and quick installation, support for mobile users, the question is raised, why is wireless not replacing structured cabling systems?
The answer to this brings us to an assessment of the perceived disadvantages of wireless. Three major obstacles have been, or are, stopping greater penetration of the market – reliability, security and bandwidth. If we look at reliability we can say straight away that it would be foolish to state that any communication based on radio can compete with electrical and light signals running down their respective media. Sources of interference and the ever changing environment will always be a challenge to the provisioning of reliable channels, however many of these problems can be minimised by proper planning of the wireless install, and having installations carried out by properly trained engineers rather than ‘have-a-go-heroes’.
Lack of security has always been cited as a weakness of wireless LAN, with anyone using a wireless laptop able to ‘sniff’ your data as it travels through the air. It was true that the early attempts to secure information, so called WEP, were not thought through, resulting in an encryption method that could be broken relatively easily. That said, while you would not rely on WEP as a guardian for your country’s secrets, most networks are not carrying data of a highly secret nature. For those that were it was always possible to use secure VPN technology across the wireless network and there were a number of products available providing a single box solution. Nevertheless, the IEEE themselves have addressed this very issue with robust security measures in the 802.11i Security standard. This has improved upon encryption with Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP), dealt with the issue of data tampering with improved Message Integrity Checking, and authentication with 802.1x network logon protocol.
Another issue has been the lack of bandwidth offered by wireless as compared to UTP systems that can deliver 10Gig to the host. While this is true, for the most part offering users dedicated 100Mbps to the desk is unnecessary. For most users, they would not even be aware they are on wireless when it comes to network response times.
So with the worst of the security flaws dealt with how do we offer greater bandwidth, better coverage and a more resilient network. In January of this year the IEEE took a step closer to 802.11n with ratification of the Draft Specification. The advent of 802.11n promises transmission speeds to 600Mbps with greater cover and resilience provided by Multiple In Multiple Out (MIMO) technology. MIMO allows multiple data paths and also takes technology uses multiple antennas for both transmission and reception allowing spatial multiplexing. ‘Pre-N’ MIMO equipment is already widely available, though current products are only offering improved and more reliable coverage rather than increased bandwidth.
Looking to the future, the 802.11e standard ratified at the end of last year addresses with the issue of wireless traffic prioritisation, QoS. With this in place real time applications such as Voice over IP can be run over wireless LAN’s and vendors are already bringing out products for these applications.
Many resellers have benefited from offering wireless as part of the services over the last few years. However the market has changed, big profits are generally not available from the hardware as wireless kit has become commoditised and end users expecting costly site surveys to now take place free of charge. Resellers should therefore focus on the correct integration of wireless with the network on the whole, while taking into account the applications that the network will need to support. This can only be achieved if the reseller is prepared to invest in the right training for their engineers, and by keeping abreast of the latest technologies, appreciating the opportunities that they bring.