Rethinking the wireless LAN

Mobile devices and sensors are eating up WLAN bandwidth -- and forcing a rethink of Wi-Fi in business

It's the neglected stepchild of mobile: the wireless LAN. But businesses can't afford to continue that practice. It's time to rethink the wireless LAN not as a parallel network for casual use but as part of the core network, argues Andrew Borg, a mobile analyst at the Aberdeen Group. He has the numbers to back that up. (InfoWorld readers are eligible for a free PDF copy of the Aberdeen wireless LAN report through May 31, 2011.)

Here's the issue: Most wireless LANs were deployed haphazardly, as extensions or overlays of the wired LAN. In both cases, the idea was to supplement the real network with wireless access for the occasional user, such as a visitor toting a laptop. But as mobile devices gain strong adoption in businesses, it's not unusual for there to be as many -- or more -- devices connecting to your network via Wi-Fi as are plugged into an Ethernet jack.

Why the wireless LAN has become a core, strategic network

Yet most businesses don't have the bandwidth or security to adequately handle that growing Wi-Fi usage. Much of the growth has come from smartphones and tablets: Aberdeen's surveys show that 82 percent of companies already have smartphones on their wireless LANs and 75 percent have tablets, compared to 95 percent that have laptops, and by spring 2012, 100 percent expect to have laptops in use on their wireless LANs, 99 percent to have smartphones, and 96 percent to have tablets.

But Borg says those are just the tip of the iceberg of what is running on wireless LANs these days. Companies report the following types of devices already in use on their wireless networks:

  • 43 percent have wireless printers, expected to rise to 56 percent by spring 2012
  • 38 percent have e-book readers, expected to rise to 49 percent
  • 32 percent have bar code scanners, expected to rise to 42 percent
  • 32 percent have asset tracking systems, expected to rise to 43 percent
  • 31 percent have video surveillance, expected to rise to 44 percent
  • 30 percent have video monitors, expected to rise to 47 percent
  • 29 percent have videconferencing, expected to rise to 52 percent
  • 25 percent have inventory systems, expected to rise to 38 percent
  • 20 percent have digital still cameras, expected to rise to 28 percent
  • 19 percent have entertainment systems, expected to rise to 25 percent
  • 17 percent have gaming systems, expected to rise to 21 percent
  • 12 percent have heating and air conditioning (HVAC systems), expected to rise to 19 percent
  • 9 percent have electric meters, expected to rise to 19 percent
  • 6 percent have appliances, expected to rise to 12 percent

Most of these devices are used for mission-critical activities, yet most wireless LANs aren't designed to be mission-critical, Borg says. As is often the case, those companies that have taken a strategic view of their wireless LANs -- centrally managing them as part of the core LAN, not as a separate network from the wired LAN -- are both getting better performance than the rest. They typically have twice or more the performance across a series of measures, including problem resolution time (3:1), application response time (2:1), end-to-end wireless LAN performance (3:1), and end-to-end LAN performance (2:1).

What Aberdeen calls the best-in-class companies (the top 20 percent) spent $177 per connected user for all LAN costs, versus $183 for the middle 50 percent and $188 for the bottom 30 percent (what Aberdeen calls the "laggards").

Worse, most wireless LANs aren't actively managed, even using basic technologies such as Wi-Fi sniffers and the WIPS intrusion prevention protocol, so companies have no strong clue as to who or what is using them. That raises security issues, of course, but it also brings up network management issues such as understanding usage patterns to be able to manage the wirless LAN and the wired backbone supporting it for quality of service (QoS).

How to rethink your wireless LAN

Borg says the steps needed to make your wireless LAN responsive, reliable, and secure even as the demands on it grow are straightforward.

First, manage it centrally with your wired LAN. In fact, treat the two as one LAN, both in terms of management tools and the people you have manage and run them. Bringing together wired and wireless experts not only allows for a better designed and managed network, it usually reduces costs, Borg says. Bringing together the networks does not mean having to standardize on one vendor's technology, he notes -- many network management tools are designed to manage vendor heterogeneity, whch he says is a natural consequence of growth and acquisition and so should be assumed in your management tool choices.

The management should not just be of the technology but of the policies around access and utilization. Prioritize access based on both applications and type of users: critical applications such as your transaction and unified communication applications should get priority over noncritical ones, such as Web access and perhaps some intranet services.

Likewise, users who rely on wireless access for work that direcly matters to your economics -- such as field workers and sales staff -- should get priority over users for whom wireless access is a nice-to-have extra. Implement a "fair use" strategy that doesn't let individual people or applications hog network resources -- and ensure the network is designed for the legitimate hogs, as their appetities will only grow.

Second, implement 802.11n networks wherever possible. They carry more data than the 802.11b and 802.11g networks commonly installed, and they tend to have larger range. Borg suggests companies experiencing bottlenecks at the wireless edge invest in a "forklift" upgrade of their wireless equpment to 802.11n and that companies invest in doing the radio analysis to understand how best to deploy the access points and routers; not doing so can create bottlenecks that reduce the performance of the entire network. He also says it's critical to beef up the backbone, so you don't transfer performance bottlenecks from the wireless edge into the wired core.

Third, be sure to actively monior your network not just for security purposes but for performance, so you can adjust both network resources and utilization policies as needed for the optimal result (what Borg calls "quality of experience"). Because what is optimal can change over time, Borg says it's important to keep analyzing your network over time, not just when you first decide to rework it.

None of Aberdeen's advice is particularly novel: It's what IT should do for any important asset. But many IT organizations didn't consider Wi-Fi to be important and did just a "good enough" deployment. The world has changed, and it's time to reclassify the wireless LAN as a key information technology asset -- and manage it accordingly. You'll get a better network and lower costs if you do.

This article, "Spurred by mobile, rethinking the wireless LAN," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Galen Gruman's Mobile Edge blog and follow the latest developments in mobile technology at InfoWorld.com. Follow Galen's mobile musings on Twitter at MobileGalen. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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