It’s fairly common in the technology industry to find something of a gap between what suppliers try to market and what users are prepared to spend money on. The best example of this is probably in web services, heavily promoted by the IT industry as the next big thing, but still seen as an experiment by many.
Even more striking is the situation over WiFi, or wireless local area networks (WLans). On the one hand, every new copy of Microsoft XP and Office has a button for connecting to the nearest wireless server available; on the other, actual takeup has been limited.
Nonetheless, anyone in a position to approve the outlay of capital expenditure will need to take a stance on WiFi soon, as the vendor community looks set to make a big push on this front in 2003. For instance, Intel has just announced its Centrino Mobile technology, something the company claims will lengthen the battery life of the average laptop sufficiently to make going WiFi worthwhile.
But users, take care. WiFi is attractive, but probably only for certain scenarios. Only take it up if your organisation can really benefit from the advance, say experts. Indeed, Rith Kirby, director of networking at computer services company Synstar, doubts WiFi makes much sense outside a limited number of niche applications at the moment. “It makes sense for organisations such as the NHS to go wireless as healthcare providers could benefit from handhelds being used in a roaming environment. But we certainly don’t see it in many tenders or customer requests, and I don’t bother doing a lot of marketing on these products because I don’t think I’ll get a lot of return,” says Kirby.
WiFi is a radio-based way for computers to interconnect and – even though throughput is still way behind what you can get through a wire in the floor – it is growing. It allows workers to turn on their machines and be online instantly, wherever they are, without the need to plug in four or five wires to get going.
There are two sorts of WiFi, not in a technical sense but in a deployment aspect. There’s public WiFi, or hot spots, and corporate WiFi, the rollout of WLans in your own company.
Hot-spot WiFi is when an airline or retailer (Lufthansa and WHSmith being two high-profile pioneers) puts a free WLan in its environment to cut down on, say, customer queueing (in other words, floorwalkers that can zap your purchases with their laser guns so you don’t have to stand in line at the till or check-in).
This is great, and could be a good showcase for the potential of the technology, but it isn’t an issue for corporate users who need to worry about whether they should deploy it in-house. Still, expect an enthused email from a senior executive once he has fired up his Powerbook in one of these places, wondering why he can’t do it in the Bracknell office, too.
In the end, WiFi is really just a way to avoid the need for cabling.
That sounds trivial, but it actually isn’t. A good case in point is the one faced by Paul Duckworth, managing director of xit2, an Oxfordshire-based software company that supplies the financial services sector. Duckworth has just expanded his office space by buying the adjoining building. But, as it’s a beautiful 18th century barn, he faced some constraints bridging a three-century infrastructure gap. “Next door had thick rubble-filled walls, and it would have been too difficult to install standard cabling in them,” he says. Instead, he’s deploying wireless laptops for his senior sales team in the new rooms – a move he says will save expenditure on cabling, trunking and network points. “The laptop wireless cards cost #20 each, so this is a good deal for us,” he says.
Collaboration is yet another benefit of adopting wireless connectivity. For example, if you have a large, mobile workforce with many offices and many meeting rooms, avoiding the limitations of having to find the right plug to hook into the networks is sensible.
“Any financial director can see the plus-side of increasing organisational connectedness and productivity by whatever means they can,” says Brian Walshe, head of BT Retail’s Mobility and Security Proposition. “If you’re out of the office two days in five, the chances are you’re experiencing a lot of ‘dead’ time, either while travelling or waiting to travel. With wireless connectivity, you could put that dead time to good use,” explains Mike Bonello, European mobile marketing manager at Intel.
On the face of it, it seems like a good idea to go wire-free. But, of course, that begs the question, how often are you going to find your organisation in those circumstances? Not all companies are buying new offices at the moment, and not all of them have a large hot-desking or fluid workforce.
So, for the moment, only consider WiFi if you’re in expansion mode and want to save on infrastructure overhead, but beware of the current speed restrictions.
And don’t be put off by the security bug-bear. “Large enterprise have shied away from WiFi, partly for this reason, but there’s no need,” says Kevin Mapplebeck, vice president of marketing and business development at Synad, a company that makes WiFi hardware. He claims that advances in standards such as Wired Equipment Privacy (WEP) and WiFi Protected Access (being pushed by Microsoft and the WiFi Alliance) are being balanced by users finally realising that WiFi isn’t secure out of the box, and that encryption and other measures need to be switched on by them.
The analogy with the mobile phone does seem tempting. At one time people scoffed at the things, now we hear that two-thirds of the UK population has one, and few would give them up because of their convenience and portability.
But for the moment, only go for WiFi for new build or greenfield. As Duckworth points out, “I like wireless, but I wouldn’t rip out our existing cable to replace it. That’s not a sensible use of investment.”
According to Kirby, “WiFi is like IP telephony. It really only makes sense when you’re scooping out the new office as a future-proof concept. It can make sense for deploying access outside the network in certain other cases too, but that’s mainly when you should be thinking about using it.”
Bonello believes WiFi isn’t right for all companies, but doesn’t think it should be ruled out altogether. “If you have a traditional wired network and a high proportion of PCs versus laptops, WiFi doesn’t necessarily make sense. But if your company is growing, don’t limit your options as WiFi can still be a useful bridging technology,” he says.
Jonathan Knight, senior technical consultant at Enterasys, a network company, is enthusiastic about its capabilities. “I can connect to the company straight from the car park and start work before I get in the office.”
Your attitude to WiFi will probably become clear in your reaction to that remark.
London-based Aspect (www.aspectgroup.co.uk) is a software consultancy that has done a lot of work on websites for companies such as publishers Emap, ebusiness Handbag.com and the relaunched 1901 Census site. It plans to grow by buying up smaller companies in the same market and consolidating expertise in this area. Paul Collins, the company’s chief financial officer, says his company has chosen WiFi to connect up part of its 2,500 square foot office space. “When we moved into the new building, we were looking at a considerable investment in infrastructure, which we wanted to limit.” Collins likes WiFi as it means cheaper hard-wire cabling and offers the ability to hot desk. Ten staffers use wireless-enabled laptops in the WiFi part of the floor, “which has reduced our infrastructure costs to zero”, he adds. But Aspect won’t offer wireless to its developers, he says, as they would notice the drop in bandwidth (WiFi users share a 22Mbit pipe versus the standard 100). “Wireless is like the early days of the mobile phone – attractive, but limited.”
FACTS AND FIGURES
WiFi is a communications technology, based on the 802.11x standard.
The x means there are a number of sub-standards, such as 802.11a (the slowest), up to 802.11g (still on the drawing boards, but offering very acceptable speed).
WiFi isn’t the same as Bluetooth. That’s really a very local (1.5 metre radius) way of connecting your laptop to, say, your printer or personal digital assistant. WiFi is a bigger network for up to 100 metres and for 8-20 users.
A good overview of WiFi technology can be found at www.wifialliance.com.