Technology: Wireless Networks

By Gary Bolles  |  Posted 06-13-2002

Technology: Wireless Networks

At a recent technology conference, Gartner Inc. analyst Ken Dulaney told a packed room that the average company is likely harboring at least one rogue network of wireless PCs. He then suggested that the 100-odd CIOs in attendance think about what would happen if they went looking for such networks. "How many of you expect you wouldn't find any?" he asked. Not a single hand went up.

Like many grass-roots technologies before it, wireless networking is sprouting everywhere like so much kudzu. Why so much wireless? The simple answer: Cost—or rather the lack of it. Gartner has estimated the total cost of ownership for wireless connections at a little more than $3,000 per port, versus $5,000 for wired links, with most of the savings coming from doing away with the need to pull cable through walls. The most popular scheme today, 802.11b, or Wi-Fi,typically requires nothing more than an inexpensive wireless hub, or access point, and an even cheaper PC card. And newer flavors—802.11a, faster and more reliable at shorter distances, and 802.11g, a more reliable version of 802.11b—are right around the corner.

The result: an instant network for as little as a few hundred dollars and, at least to the untrained eye, minimal ongoing costs. Sounds good? Be careful. The technology may be inexpensive, but radio networks don't work the same way as their wired cousins, so IT departments unschooled in radio connections can make rookie mistakes. First of all, getting good performance isn't so easy: The bandwidth range used by 802.11b is like a busy highway traversed by so many different kinds of unregulated traffic that all sorts of devices, from cordless phones to microwave ovens, can interfere with network signals.

The second problem is managing these systems. "If you have 1,000 access points in your business, and people are starting to depend on them, and an access point goes down, how are you going to know that it's down?" asks Mitch Davis, executive director of academic technology and consulting at Stanford University's Information Technology Systems and Services (ITSS) group. Tracking down flaky components in a wireless network is a lot tougher than troubleshooting wired networks, because it requires a relatively sophisticated understanding of radio communications—not exactly the stock in trade of the typical IT department.

And 802.11 networks can turn the economics of networking on its ear. Much of the cost of traditional wired networks is sunk in the cabling, with low-cost hardware typically at the ends of such connections. Wireless, however, puts all of the cost into the access points and PC cards—using technology that's still changing rapidly. Finally, 802.11b's widely reported security leaks have limited its use in environments that need to be secure—meaning most companies (see next month's issue of CIO Insight).

But rather than letting 802.11b's challenges get in the way, says Gartner's Dulaney, IT executives should get ahead of the curve and figure out how to put the technology to good use. "CIOs have to look at it offensively," says Dulaney, "and say, 'How can I use it to my advantage?'"

Bedside Manner

Bedside Manner

Performance has been the issue for Ash Shehata, director of information systems and telecommunications at Antelope Valley Hospital, north of Los Angeles. Shehata has been looking at wireless since 1997. Until recently, the technology was too immature. However, the hospital has decided it's time to consider wireless to solve the thorny problem of bedside computing, which involves providing doctors and nurses with the ability to access and update medical records at the "point of care." But building codes limit the hospital's ability to punch holes for wiring, and the rapid growth of stationary PCs at nursing stations and the like meant added costs the hospital would rather avoid. Says Shehata: "We were unwilling to spend on tethered networks. It's easy to buy computers, but the wiring in our organization is almost like you have to have a Ph.D." Worse, says Shehata, federal regulations require hospitals like Antelope Valley to file for permits every time they want to add wired networking connections, adding permit fees to the already high cost of wiring.

Meanwhile, the hospital already runs a host of wireless devices on any number of radio frequencies, and introducing a new wireless connection into that potential morass could mean conflicts with lifesaving equipment. Even doctors' pagers could be a problem. And the concrete construction typical of hospitals can cause unpredictable "dead zones" that can hamper communication at crucial points.

So Shehata brought in radio frequency engineers to consult on the layout of the hospital's seven buildings. The consulting team mapped out the optimum number of wireless access points, where they'd have to overlap, and how many wireless devices could talk to each access point without sacrificing performance. Then Shehata's IT team asked all the medical-device companies from whom the hospital already buys wireless equipment to certify in writing the radio frequencies on which each product operates, to ensure no device would mangle Wi-Fi communications. The result was a network design with 80 access points, so that every wireless device on the network would have at least 90 percent of maximum signal strength. Total installation time: two weeks.

Shehata says the hospital is just finishing up the pilot phase of the project, having tested 150 devices, 50 of them Compaq iPAQ Pocket PC handheld computers. Full rollout will begin this summer, with the goal to connect about 1,000 devices by the end of the year, on a network designed to support up to 5,000. "Now, a physician can walk into our organization and not have to go to a specific department" for certain computing services, says Shehata. "They'll have everything in every unit."

And the return on investment? According to Shehata, the wireless network has already reduced overall desktop costs at nursing and other stations by 35 percent, and healthcare professional productivity has increased by 25 percent. Shehata says that the project has reached 95 percent of its ROI goals, and expects to reach the remaining 5 percent by the end of June, when the pilot will be complete. "We think we're going to beat our original projections," he says.

The Law of Wireless

The Law of Wireless

CIOs shouldn't fool themselves that just because the equipment seems to drop in easily and cheaply, wireless networks are easy to manage. Just ask Stanford's Davis. Wireless access was first installed at Stanford University's law school nearly three years ago. Entering law students were required to buy laptop computers that gave them wireless Web access and the ability to reach online legal databases and even take tests.

But wireless access was only available on an ad hoc basis and not designed for classroom use until the law school began planning to remodel its buildings early last year. Davis estimated that in classrooms in the law school alone, as many as 2,500 students were going to require connections to the campus network in the revamped buildings. But every wired Ethernet connection was going to cost about $1,000 just for initial installation.

"We had run wireless, and had found very little operational cost," says Davis. "Basically, [the savings from not cabling] a third of just one room provided us all the value we needed for the whole law school" to install wireless, says Davis. Success at the law school prompted Davis to push for a campuswide installation, bringing in networks such as the engineering school and even the football stadium, which now offers wireless access to sports scores. By April, the campus had 200 wireless access points installed, with 500 more planned within the year. But the network still wasn't live.

The sticking point? Management. Davis soon found that he couldn't monitor the bandwidth being used on any one access point—a process that's perfectly simple on a wired network. Worse, there was no way to figure out if the network was even working unless a student called in a problem.

That's why his team spent so much time crafting a management scheme. Davis bought management technology from Cisco Systems Inc. that lets the university determine which access points are down, allowing them to drop new hardware in place quickly. And software from Newbury Networks allows Davis to manage its wireless network "almost the same as you manage your wired space," says Davis. He can use the access points to locate specific wireless devices, so the support team can trouble-shoot problems right down to the user level.

Davis says the new management scheme is working so well that the university plans to announce campuswide wireless access in June.

Stock in Trade

Stock in Trade

Even when it's built on an existing wired system that's functioning well, large-scale wireless rollouts can require near-military precision. Take Longs Drug Stores Corp. Each of the firm's nearly 450 retail locations throughout the western U.S. and Hawaii stock an average of more than 100,000 items each year, so lots of computer power is a necessity. And until recently, each store sent point-of-sale information over high-speed data lines to the company's central inventory database in Walnut Creek, Calif. Store managers kept on top of the dozens—and sometimes hundreds—of pricing changes, and stocked items by scanning every single item each week.

But that was the problem: The retail system was far from the store floor, and keeping up with changing prices meant filling up a shopping cart with every product sold, wheeling it into the back room, scanning them all, then returning them to the shelves. Then the system would print out problem lists, which employees had to go back and resolve in the aisles.

And what problems there were. Any change in pricing—manufacturer price increases, temporary price reductions, promotions in ad circulars, product recalls—required new labeling on the shelf, and sometimes even on the items themselves. Regular changes in stocking—holidays, changing seasons, and back-to-school promotions—meant a constant cycling of products on and off the shelves. "It's a very dynamic environment," says Carl Britto, Longs' director of store technology planning. "That's what's so exciting about retail."

Exciting, yes. But for a store manager, exhausting. The answer was the "mobile manager 1,000," a pushcart with a wireless laptop from Symbol Technologies Inc. built-in. Employees could simply wheel the cart to the shelf, scan products effortlessly, and transfer the stocking information automatically to the store's retail information system. Once the system was designed and tested, says Britto, Longs had all its locations up and running within seven months. "The rollout was one of the fastest we've ever done," says Britto.

He points to several critical steps that smoothed the process. The first was to develop a complete rollout plan "so you don't have to double back," says Britto, and repeat any steps that might have been missed. And Longs rolled out the application to be used by employees before it installed the wireless hardware, giving local managers time to learn the software.

As to the return on investment, Britto says a beta evaluation was initially conducted in five Longs stores. Analysts clocked the amount of time it took to perform a variety of tasks using the old bar-code system, then compared the same tasks once the wireless system was installed. Based on estimated reduced labor costs of at least 10 to 15 hours per week at each store, the wireless system was estimated to provide complete payback within 12 to 18 months. And Britto says the company is "pretty close" to being on track to delivering on that commitment.

Not everything went smoothly. Britto was pleased that Symbol and Cisco developed a partnership to integrate Symbol's mobile devices with Cisco's wireless networking just as Longs was installing its system, but he wasn't happy with the speed at which Cisco kept its promise to deliver enhanced security for the system. "The vendor needs to put its money where its mouth is," cautions Britto.

Still, Longs has ambitious plans for the system. The next step is to use smaller handheld devices that would allow store personnel to process customer returns and perform store audits quickly. The company is also experimenting with connecting store equipment not currently on the local network, such as photo lab processing and video rental machines. Some cash registers will be converted to wireless, allowing stores to hold sidewalk sales more easily.

Britto's satisfaction with the business value of the wireless network is clear. "We want to compete, so we have to do things faster, cheaper, and the technology has to roll out faster, cheaper," he says.

Wireless World

Wireless World

Will wireless be the way of the world? Says Rich Redelfs, president and CEO of 802.11 chipmaker Atheros Communications Inc.: "In some environments, you can actually eliminate the wires. Now this is an area that makes the IT guys really nervous. They say, 'There's no way I'm going to eliminate wires. This is a parallel network, my job's on the line, people have to have Ethernet at their desks.'" Redelfs' response: There's just too much money to be saved at small offices and remote offices. And that, he believes, points the way toward the savings potential in all-wireless installations. To warrant such widespread use, he concedes, "the network has to be super-reliable, and the confidence in wireless is not there yet. But I'm confident we can make it as reliable as wired."

However, Redelfs says, the all-wireless company is a ways down the road. "We can't just expect it," he says. "We have to earn it."

Fact Sheet

Fact Sheet

Fact Sheet Thumbnail
Click to download Fact Sheet.

The use of wireless lans in the 802.11 frequency range is growing rapidly—sometimes not by choice. That means companies should stay in front of the technology, which offers flexibility and benefits far beyond the simple ability to move computers around the office. Wireless can also have a significant positive effect on corporate culture.

WIRELESS LANS LET COMPANIES…

  • Flexibly manage employees' office moves and changes.
  • More easily support untethered workers—in and out of the office.
  • Creatively rethink warehouse- and retail-based business processes.
  • Boost productivity through flexible, always-on connections.
  • Support a culture that gets information and solves problems in real time.

ADVANTAGES

  • High costs of installing networking cable disappear.
  • Workers can use their computers when and where they need to, boosting productivity.
  • Visiting workers can easily connect to the network.
  • Installation and modification of workgroup spaces are vastly simplified.
  • 802.11a offers high-bandwidth ser-vices without hardware upgrades.
  • DISADVANTAGES

  • Management tools are nascent, so trouble-shooting networks can be tough.
  • Dead zones and conflicts with other wireless devices can disrupt and kill connections.
  • Standards are changing rapidly, so existing products can soon become obsolete.
  • Security remains problematic (see next month's CIO Insight).
  • FLAVORS

    • 802.11b: Most common, known as Wi-Fi, and the cheapest. Rated at 11 megabits per second; common throughput is 5.5 megabits per second.
    • 802.11a: Next-generation specification, products recently introduced but prices dropping rapidly. Rated at 54 megabits per second; 25 mbps likely.
    • 802.11g: Improves on reliability of 802.11a at speeds intended to be greater than 802.11b.

    MAJOR PLAYERS

    Platform Vendors

    • Cisco Systems, Inc.: The Aironet 340 series is at the high end, offering extensive management features.
    • Linksys Group, Inc.: This company offers some of the least expensive products, but without the robust security extensions of competitors.
    • 3Com Corp.: Relatively new to Wi-Fi, 3Com's WLAN Launcher for its PC cards seeks out available access points.

    Tools

    • Sniffer Technologies' Sniffer Wireless: The protocol analyzer for wireless LANs allows network managers to watch wireless traffic.
    • Ethereal: Free protocol analyzer for Windows and Unix.
    • AirTraf: Open source 802.11b protocol analyzer.

    RESOURCES

    www.80211-planet.com
    Web site providing broad range of resources, including a conference.

    www.wireless ethernet.org
    Sponsored by the Wire-less Ethernet Compati-bility Alliance, includes listings of certified 802.11 products.

    www.oreillynet.com/ topics/wireless/802.11
    O'Reilly Network's popular wireless LAN resource page for the more technically inclined.

    grouper.ieee.org/groups/802/11
    The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Inc. working group site on wireless LANs, for the very technical.

    www.extremetech.com/ article/0,3396,s=1034&a= 22938,00.asp
    ExtremeTech's analysis of fast Wi-Fi products.

    www.apple.com/ airport/faq
    Apple's frequently asked questions about the most recent version of its AirPort wireless access point.