Wireless LANs: Coming soon to an enterprise near you

Are WLANs ready for enterprise-wide adoption? One wireless expert thinks they are.

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Let me make a bold prediction: Even if you're not using a wireless LAN today, you will soon, because WLANs will become ubiquitous in the enterprise over the next few years.

Why? Because WLANs can do everything LANs do, but without requiring users to find a place to plug in. This means that anyone using a laptop can now have a truly mobile network. With the rapid reductions in equipment prices seen in recent years, it can be cheaper to go wireless than to install and maintain the wired connections between a backbone network and individual user locations. And don't forget mobility, the killer app for wireless. Mobility, properly managed, can improve convenience, productivity, responsiveness, customer service and operational efficiency. I've yet to see a company go wireless and then go back to wire.

WLAN drawbacks

Apart from a less-than-established TCO/ROI picture for WLANs, the biggest issue holding back enterprise deployments has been security. Indeed, all of the issues surrounding WLAN security seen in recent years have served to reinforce general awareness of the requirement for network security overall, and that's a clear benefit regardless. Nonetheless, WLAN security has now been largely addressed, via both mechanisms within the standard that secure the airlink -- the connection between the user and a WLAN access point (AP) -- and the end-to-end connection between the user and network resources. The latter is easily handled via (VPNs, now very common in the enterprise.

Another big issue delaying adoption was the availability of WLAN systems truly designed for enterprise deployments. Today's enterprise-class WLANs are usually based on wireless switches or similar appliances, and provide the management and control needed to roll out even very large deployments. Better integration with wired LANs and their management systems is on the way. Voice is also going to become a killer app for enterprise WLANs, especially as dual-mode cellular/Wi-Fi handsets become available over the next few years.

Early adoption

WLANs are at least partially sneaking into companies as a result of what I call the "Macintosh Effect." Remember the early days of the Mac, when staff members would bring their Macs from home because they were easier to use than PCs? Well, WLANs have proven very popular in the residence because most homes are much more difficult to wire than businesses. Therefore, those enjoying the convenience of wireless in the home, now want the same access at work. Apart from the threat posed by home APs brought in and connected to enterprise networks (the so-called "rogue access points"), many businesses are now responding to this demand by enabling official and properly secured WLANs at work. And, by the way, you can deal with that rogue AP problem. Intrusion-detection systems, often included in LAN systems but also available as standalone products, can now find them quite easily in most cases.

So if you don't have a WLAN today, you will soon. The benefits are enormous, and once you go wireless, you won't go back.

Craig J. Mathias is founder of the Farpoint Group, an advisory firm specializing in wireless communications and mobile computing.

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