Gentlemen, Start Your Wireless LANs

When the sky darkened over Charlotte, N.C., in May of 2003, NASCAR driver Jimmy Johnson took a chance. Rather than pull in for a scheduled pit stop, he stayed on the track, betting that an incoming rain storm would end the race early.

It wasn't a blind gamble. Johnson's Charlotte-based Hendrick Motorsports Inc. team, a $64 million NASCAR racing venture, had a satellite connection to near real-time weather information, and his pit crew knew a severe storm was on the way. Thanks to a portable wireless LAN that Hendrick sets up on race day, everyone with a laptop on each of Hendrick's four teams can access data and e-mail or instant message each other, giving them an edge over the competition.

Hendrick is a wireless pioneer. It's been using various iterations of wireless LAN technology for more than five years, moving from one standard to the next, seeking out higher bandwidth and escaping the interference caused by others following its lead.

The technology has come into its own over the last two years, and Hendrick has been reaping the rewards. When the checkered flag was raised after only 276 of the scheduled 400 laps that rainy day, Johnson's bet paid off and he found himself in the winner's circle. "Wireless is critical," says Hendrick CIO Chris Newsome, who worked closely with Scott Maxim, director of track support, to plan the system. "Our engineers couldn't do their job every weekend without wireless."

Early adopters like these famed racers are beginning to bump wireless LANs toward mainstream use. Today, only 15% of businesses worldwide have them, but that figure should jump to 50% by 2009, when total spending will reach $13 billion from today's $2.45 billion, says Chris Collins, a senior director with Redwood City, Calif.-based Dell'Oro Group Inc. A survey of midsized companies by IDC of Framingham, Mass., found that nearly one-quarter of respondents will likely invest in mobile and wireless technology this year.

The business case is getting easier, particularly in some areas with highly mobile workers. In hospitals, wireless LANs and handheld devices help physicians and nurses give better care faster, with instant access to patient records and data. When warehouse workers scan inventory, the data can now travel instantly to a central server. With dropping price points and users clamoring for mobility in conference rooms, some midmarket CIOs have added wireless LAN access points in office environments.

The increased bandwidth of the latest protocols and the centralized management capabilities now available mean wireless LANs have become a low-cost way for businesses to untether their employees and better meld technology with work process across a host of environments. Yet it is that same ease of use, plus the broad availability of inexpensive wireless access points, that may pose the largest threat to businesses. With the most expensive enterprise access points priced at $800 and consumer grade products coming in at under $50, according to William Terrell, senior analyst with the Burton Group, do-it-yourself wireless LANs among users may represent the greatest security risk.

Nonetheless, as certain industries anchor usage and others enter the fray, the message is clear: Wireless LANs have come of age.

The Early Years

The maturation has been a long time coming. Wireless technology has been around for decades in parts of the supply chain where businesses used dedicated devices for tracking inventory and parts. The lack of standards threatened to keep it a marginal technology.

Then, in 1999, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), the reputable standards body, released the 802.11b standard wireless protocol. The protocol, and its backing by the IEEE, opened the floodgates for wireless LAN technology, at least in the consumer mindset. Wireless LAN cards became common in laptops and personal digital assistants (PDA). Hotels, airports and coffee shops installed publicly accessible hot spots, giving laptop-toting executives with downtime access to the Internet. This untethered connectivity became known as "Wi-Fi," after the Wi-Fi Alliance, an organization that tests for interoperability among products. (Today, Wi-Fi is synonymous with wireless LAN.)

Businesses also toyed with wireless LANs to help them run operations in new and creative ways. A year after IEEE released 802.11b, Hendrick deployed wireless LAN networks among its pit crews. Hendrick has reaped the benefits of each new version -- from 802.11b, which soon became congested, to a proprietary Motorola wireless network that turned out to be too slow, to the 802.11a standard, which operates in the far less trafficked 5 GHz spectrum and touts 54 Mbps throughput. Today, those standards enable Hendrick to use access points from both Cisco Systems Inc. and Proxim Corp., as well as laptops from major vendors.

IEEE's landmark 802.11b release beckoned to other users as well. Three years ago, employees at $200 million Kohler, Wis.-based food manufacturer Johnsonville Sausage LLC were tracking inventory in the warehouse using handheld scanners. But the devices uploaded the information to a central database in batches, such that employees didn't always have the most current information. Employees went to retrieve inventory from a location only to find it had been moved. "There were errors on orders. Employees wasted time going to empty locations," CIO Ron Gilson recalls. "We were not able to react to changes in the business in a timely way."

This was first published in May 2005

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