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?'”

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