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In-premises Wi-Fi: will it be wireless all the way?

The provisioning of enterprise workplace networked communications is changing: forward-looking organisations are starting to remove all the plug-in cable connections for desktop PCs and telephones, and migrating their enterprise users onto mobile computing devices that rely entirely on wireless connectivity.

Who's ready for the all-wireless premises network and the ineluctable demise of Ethernet-to-the-desktop? No more PCs shackled to the desktop by copper cables; no more bulky handsets full of telephony features that no-one ever uses which also remain tethered to their surroundings by pesky tangled wires... It could all be here sooner than we think, thanks to the convergence of mobility, new working expectations – and newer new technology.

It's all down to better management of the local spectrum that enable connected devices to connect via wireless networks, in one way or another, and the use of radio frequencies (RF) signalling to perform short-range tasks that back in the day had to be supported by physical connections. Sounds promising – but let's first ask, what's so bad with the traditional desktop Ethernet links that have served us well for decades? Ethernet is surely fast enough for most desktop computing needs, and relatively simple to connect and to troubleshoot when glitches occur.

Lest we forget, this was not the case before unshielded twisted-pair (UTP) cabling came along, with its handy RJ-45 jack-plugs. Previous connectivity configurations used coaxial (coax) cable, which had limited flexibility and could be unreliable if not terminated properly. In some ways, the (IEEE) 802.11a/b/g Wi-Fi specifications were analogous to coax Ethernet: they provided basic connectivity, but can become problematic as more devices are connected, and as the demand for bandwidth escalates.

The fix for both problems is 802.11ac, the latest iteration of Wi-Fi. If its proponents are right, this is about to do for wired Ethernet what UTP did for coax. That is partly because building a wireless Edge (Enhanced Data rates for GSM Evolution) network now requires less cabling, fewer components, and takes less time, compared with adding more or faster-wired connections. Wireless also means greater flexibility and responsiveness to ever-changing organisational needs.

'Don't take away my cables...'

However, it is not the technology that is driving the shift to an all-wireless edge, according to Dominic Orr, CEO of Wi-Fi solutions specialist Aruba Networks. It is a 'key enabler', to be sure, but the real driver is generational change and the exponential rise in the number of connected devices such as tablet PCs and smartphones that simply do not have a wired option. Put simply, end-users do not want to plug in, turn on and chill out; they want- expect – good quality cordless Wi-Fi.

"We now spend more than 30 per cent of our lives occupying a third place that's not home or work, where we don't access a wired network so much," explains Orr. "The aim for [location providers like beverage chain] Starbucks and [its ilk] is to make that third place as comfortable as possible, and we find ourselves doing more and more work in that third place."

So if Orr is right a lot of change is on the way for software, hardware, security and network management. A certain amount of scepticism is justifiable however, not least because the all-wireless local-area network access has been forecast before: in the mid-2000s, the advent of 802.11n had Wi-Fi vendors such as Meru Networks predicting the 'death' of wired Ethernet; but didn't happen then, so why should it happen now?

There is still reluctance to "let go" of the wires for some devices – "IP phones, for example," says Jean-Luc Ronarch, director of product management for network solutions at Alcatel-Lucent Enterprise. He explains that customers also assume that graphics-intensive tasks such as computer aided design (CAD), for example, need gigabit-class delivery cabled to and from the desktop, "and anyway, [by the nature of their job descriptions] the majority of office-based employees are still tethered to desks".

Aruba's Orr insists that this thinking must change. "For the first time, wireless is now faster than wired," he claims, adding that that crossover has already happened. He predicts that 2015 will see the wired network drop to just 20 per cent of the total, and says some 70 per cent of IT professionals are under increasing pressure to deliver and support an all-wireless workplace.

Wireless absolutely can replace wires, even for telephony, he argues. "Most staff just use their deskphones to check voicemail now, so organisations are asking 'do I really need to run a PBX [private branch exchange], or could I just use the Microsoft Exchange server or its equivalent?' In fact, we have completely eliminated the Aruba fixed-phone system. We each have an internal phone number, but we do not need to know where people are – the receptionists check on Microsoft Lync to find us."

So even if wired Ethernet does hang on for niche applications, or even for those users reluctant to trust to Wi-Fi all the way, most client traffic will be wireless. For instance, in the offices of London's Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea local authority, staff already use Wi-Fi for pretty much everything they need to do. It also enables them to work from satellite offices, as well as from the offices of two neighbouring boroughs that the authority shares services with.

"In 2008 our council buildings needed refurbishing. We thought how better to use that expensive space and came up with our own Space Programme – we opened the floors up to hot-desking," says Russell Hookway, the council's head of networks and telecommunications. "Then it was a question of how to make the building smart? How could we enable people to innovate in this space?

"The solution was to give everyone a laptop PC that they could walk around with. They also got mobile phones with a four-digit internal extension number, and we digitised all their paperwork. We provide all desks with keyboards and screens, but they can also work remotely with an IPSec virtual private network - we have council staff working all over the country."

Hookaway says the key thing is that it all has to be seamless. "People can now work flexibly, and we can lease part of the building off," he adds. "We are also looking at initiatives to open the building at weekends.Then we have to move the security to around our applications."

Re-thinking network security

Access security is often the biggest inhibitor when a switch to wireless is under consideration, but with the right approach and tools it is a groundless one, argues Dominic Orr. "We need to think differently about wireless – it's not front and back, it's in every direction, so we need to think in terms of access security rather than perimeter security," he says. "Most of the focus on access security is for staff and for enterprise-owned devices, but growth in BYOD, and so on, needs different [security management] tools."

"There was a lot of fear at first about wireless opening our network up and being insecure, but we quickly found it is probably more secure than our wired network," agrees Rob Harder, the head of IT service development and business support at Plymouth Hospitals NHS Trust, an Aruba customer. "Wireless is a given now, both at home and at work," he adds. "It is like electricity; it's part of the infrastructure."

Meru's VP of international sales David Kelly admits that the previous 'death-of-Ethernet' predictions have now been proved premature, but says that the delay has made the subsequent shift even more acute.

"Our vision in the mid-2000s was that everyone would have an individual laptop PC which would in practice put more users onto the WLAN," Kelly explains. "In reality,'though, most people [in the workplace] now have multiple devices, so the'issue is not the number of users, it's the number of devices."

"People haven't seen the pain of running out of airtime yet, because they've not been doing anything heavy on the wireless network – until now," he adds, noting that this is changing with the increasing use of business videoconferencing and other, more heavyweight, apps.

"Enterprises are porting their applications to mobile apps for access across the wireless access network - it is now all about apps," he adds. "You have to manage that [app traffic] on the network... Everyone now is on a mission-critical network – I don't know anyone whose network is not crucial to their business."

While the likes of Meru and Aruba are focused on making Wi-Fi as reliable and secure as possible, the shift to all-wireless is also driving structural change elsewhere in the network. You can even envisage the emergence of a wireless outer network – a 'last few metres' network – connecting to a wired inner local network. That backbone or core must also evolve as the network's 'edge' goes wireless, says Gordon Thomson, managing director for enterprise networks at Cisco EMEAR (EMEA & Russia).

"Obviously Cisco play in both the wireless and wired [solutions] markets, so it is very interested in how the market is going to transition," he explains. "There clearly needs to be much more wireless -– but once the device connects to that, where does the traffic go? It has to go to a wired switch – that means fewer switch ports, but they need to be faster, with faster backplanes, a faster core, and with 10Gig or 100Gig uplinks instead of gigabit – so the cost per switch port will be higher because people will be buying bigger ports."

He continues, "Immersive business applications mean so much more traffic coming onto wireless, but speed on its own doesn't change anything -– what's changing with 802.11ac is business application integration. For example, Cisco's head office has 50 buildings. If I go there, even after all these years of visiting, I struggle to find my way around. Now I walk in, my mobile phone talks to the network, it looks in my diary, finds my meeting, and uses location analytics to guide me to the room. That's a small example perhaps, but the key reason the wireless 'edge' did not happen with 802.11n was the lack of integrated business applications."

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