Fact: wireless networks save money and increase productivity. Craig Matthias of Farpoint Group has identified five key themes relating to WiFi that have emerged in 2009. These themes are important to consider as organizations plan, deploy, and manage their networks.
1. 802.11n is here
Even though the IEEE has yet to ratify the 802.11n specification, the Wi-Fi Alliance has been certifying 11n equipment for 2 years now, and it’s been a very successful program for them. The reasons are obvious: 11n equipment is already in widespread use and deployment rates will only increase as use of the technology shifts from consumer-based equipment to widespread enterprise deployments. All new deployments, as well as any replacement projects which are in place for 802.11, should be with 11n gear, period. The benefits are tremendous. Prices are highly competitive. It’s not only here – it’s thriving.
2. Unified networks
I’ve been saying this since I first started working with 802.11 – if you have a wireless network, you must have a wired network. They do not exist in a vacuum. So to even think of one as separate from the other is ludicrous. Granted, network management may be a bit different between the two, the network must be viewed as a whole, meaning a unified wired/wireless network. And unified wired/wireless network management systems. Look for lots of development in this area over the next few years.
3. All applications are going wireless
Even more to the point, all applications ARE wireless. Users don’t distinguish between wired and wireless networks when they sit down to work, so applications shouldn’t behave differently either. Fortunately, 802.11 has been well specified to deal with this and the cases where applications don’t behave well over wireless are few and far between. Though VPN and other tunneling protocols may be exceptions, we’re also seeing rapid improvements in these areas as well.
4. Wireless security is a myth
Maybe it’s more like “wireless security is mythical” based on all of the iterations and misconceptions that have developed over time. This topic has truly been covered to death, so let’s just sum it up: WPA2 is easy to use and highly secure, perhaps even more so than your wired network. The debate is over; the myths are debunked. More to the point is that security is a policy, not just a technology, and this policy transcends both the wired and wireless network. For example, authentication can and should take place on the wired network (802.1x), even when users are wireless. The policy must be integrated and consistent, and cover all use cases, whether wired or wireless. This is a topic unto itself for perhaps a deeper dive in an upcoming blog entry.
5. Increased distributed operations
Wireless networks, especially in the enterprise, are often deployed with what I call the “Old McDonald’s Farm” approach – “here a WLAN, there a WLAN, everywhere a WLAN”. In other words, WLAN’s are seen as a “fill in” technology to cover only specific areas where wired coverage may be difficult or where large numbers of transient connections may be required. Fortunately, just as we all outgrow the joys of “Old McDonald Had a Farm,” enterprises are outgrowing this deployment mentality in favor of organized, distributed wireless deployments with centralized management. This of course plays into most of our 5 key themes, including unified networks and unified security policies. The last step is high quality, tightly integrated, centralized management and assurance tools for both wired and wireless. Only then do we achieve true unification.
So, why does any of this matter to you? Wireless will save you money and increase productivity, and that’s with what has been available so far – a/b/g networks and limited integration between wired and wireless network management. With 11n and an upcoming focus on wired and wireless network unification, we’re on the verge of something really big. We’ll no longer be singing, “Old McDonald Had a Farm” while planning our wireless network. We’ll be scoping wireless into our overall network architecture, and including wireless as an integral part in our selection of network management and assurance tools as well as our network usage policies. Oh yeah, and we’ll be saving even more money and making our “network customers” ecstatic.