Building a bridge between fixed enterprise networks and workers moving around the office or on the road has been one of the IT department’s most enduring problems. And it is about to get a whole lot worse. According to industry research group IDC, the number of workers that spend the majority of their time not at their desks is going to double in the next four years.
That statistic is breathing new life into wireless local area network (WLAN) technology. After years of relative obscurity, and despite considerable concerns over its security, WLAN, also known as Wi-Fi (‘wireless fidelity’), is suddenly one of the most talked about technologies in corporate computing.
Wi-Fi already provides high-speed wireless Internet access in many public and private locations around the world, from airports to meeting rooms and office lobbies. UK telecommunications carrier BT, for example, hopes to install 400 public networks in the UK by the summer, and 4,000 by June 2005, although those targets seem optimistic.
There are increasingly strong reasons why it should become a more mainstream corporate technology too. Unlike other wireless technologies, which have failed to satisfy demand for mobile data, Wi-Fi is fast, (relatively) cheap and it works today. It can deliver data to laptop computers and personal digital assistants (PDAs) at up to 11Mbit/s – in effect, a wireless version of Ethernet. Moreover, it promises to be a key enabling technology for the so-called ‘real-time enterprise’ – making it possible for employees to respond to events as they happen.
How a WLAN works
Communications technology: 802.11b (most prevalent today, providing throughput of 11Mbit/s and operating in the 2.4GHz radio band); 802.11a (54Mbit/s at 5GHz, but backed by fewer suppliers and costs more); or 802.11g (as fast as 802.11a and backwards compatible, coming soon).
Basic requirements: One access point, with a range of 100 metres, serves between 10 and 50 users, depending on their needs. Users should be equipped with either Wi-Fi embedded laptops or computers with an additional card or a free USB port and software. Networks can be managed centrally by Wi-Fi switches.
Suppliers: Intel, Apple, 3Com, Cisco, Lucent, Alcatel, Buffalo, Netgear, Linksys, DLink, Proxim and Symbol all sell Wi-Fi network equipment. Laptop suppliers include Dell, HP and Fujitsu Siemens. CheckPoint, Nokia, Cisco and Legato, among many others, sell virtual private network software. There are some specialist Wi-Fi installers, including FreeLAN, while managed service providers such as BT can handle systems integration and network management.
Wi-Fi’s supporters are large and influential. Not only are the giants of the telecommunications industry, including Nokia, Ericsson, Alcatel and Motorola, talking up its potential, the mainstream IT vendors are equally enthusiastic. Some of Wi-Fi’s biggest advocates include IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, Apple and Cisco Systems.
Laptop suppliers, such as Dell Computer and Fujitsu Siemens, are rushing to bring out Wi-Fi products, while Intel, the semiconductor maker, is to pump $150 million into companies developing Wi-Fi technology. “This is one of the ripest areas for innovation in the industry,” says Pat Gelsinger, Intel’s vice president and chief technology officer.
Strengthening demand from the corporate sector suggests that supplier confidence has not been misplaced. From electricity meter readers calculating a customer’s bill during a home visit, to traders keeping up with share-price movements while away from their desks, the number of new applications seem limited only by the imagination.
Estimates on the extent of the technology’s penetration into the business market vary, but there is general agreement that most Fortune 500 companies now have a WLAN somewhere in their offices. Even so, global users probably number only about 41,000, according to Current Analysis, a high-tech research firm.
In the UK, take-up among enterprises has been slower – held back initially by high costs and a hostile regulatory environment. But costs have fallen sharply in the last 12 months – some equipment, including the access points that provide the backbone of a WLAN, has halved in price since 2001 – while laws banning Wi-Fi’s commercial application have been repealed. The expectation is that demand from all sizes of UK businesses will grow steadily in 2003 before peaking in 2004.
The business benefits
Most experts agree that one of the most immediate benefits of Wi-Fi is that it avoids the cost and inconvenience of cabling, which is a particular blessing in offices that need to undergo frequent network reconfiguration.
Equally important are promised benefits for managing the supply chain and improving the performance of travelling sales people. Wi-Fi also has many ‘soft’ benefits, which are harder to quantify, such as faster decision-making, higher employee satisfaction, greater accuracy of information and increased flexibility.
Independent figures on metrics such as ROI and total cost of ownership (TCO) are, however, in short supply – thanks partly to the reluctance of many early adopters to publicise their networks for fear of being a target to hackers.
One early adopter that has a strong interest in disclosing such information, however, is Intel. Its employees began experimenting with WLANs back in 1998 and it has now equipped more than 70% of its workforce with mobile PCs. In trials, Intel found that an average of 11 extra minutes of productivity per week paid for a WLAN, and most users gained much more than that. In a particular pilot project, conducted over three years, a deployment of 150 users with a TCO of $60,000 delivered a return of $1 million.
Those numbers are appealing. But Wi-Fi’s critics claim that the technology costs a lot to install, demands considerable systems integration work and generates high support costs. The cost of buying and supporting mobile devices ranges from about EU11,000 for a wireless laptop to about EU4,400 for a wireless PDA, according to Gartner.
However, a number of vendors, including Microsoft, Netopia and Wavex, are developing tools that enable support staff to remotely diagnose and fix certain problems on laptop computers, which should help bring these costs down. In addition, some suppliers, including Symbol Technologies, have developed switches that centrally manage the network, reducing the cost of networks by up to 60% and cutting the time taken to upgrade them.
Adopting Wi-Fi is, however, not without risk. Some early adopters of Wi-Fi in the UK have had “frightening experiences”, admits Howard Hines, BT’s head of technical services. He is unwilling to discuss the nature of those incidents, citing confidentiality agreements with customers, but he stresses that the affected companies did not follow BT’s security advice.
Security is definitely Wi-Fi’s biggest weakness, but much of the risk is self-inflicted. Surveys have found that three-in-four enterprise WLANs in Europe and the US ignore even the most basic security advice and do not run the 40-bit wireless equivalent privacy (WEP) encryption that comes with standard installations.
That may be a result of criticism of WEP’s effectiveness – the code has been found to be relatively easy to break, and software tools exist that are capable of compromising WEP within a few hours. But what has baffled many analysts has been the unwillingness of users to find an alternative.
What is more, evidence gathered by ethical hackers suggests that many businesses routinely broadcast packets of data carrying the network ID and do not bother to change the settings from the factory default.
Such experiences have fuelled suspicion of Wi-Fi among some IT directors, who risk undermining their position if network security is compromised. A recent survey by digital security specialist @stake found that two in three IT managers in the UK had no plans to implement wireless technology until at least 2004, for fear of unwittingly inviting security breaches.
In many ways, however, scepticism on such a scale is inexplicable. Experts insist that companies do not have to wait for new versions of the technology; following a number of simple steps should make the WLAN as secure as the fixed network. First, they say, IT directors should place WLAN ‘cells’ (data transmitters) outside the enterprise firewall. They should then install virtual private network (VPN) software on users’ laptops, license a 128-bit encryption tool and control access to data by using the same Radius (remote authentication dial-in user service) servers used to authenticate remote users of the fixed network. In addition, they must regularly change the network ID.
But the security threat is not only external. In many cases, WLANs are springing up around the workplace without the knowledge of the IT or network manager. But finding such devices needn’t be difficult. Access points fixed to desks are a sure sign of Wi-Fi’s presence, while IBM and freeware suppliers, including Netstumbler and Kismet, also offer tools that can detect WLANs within a certain range.
In a bid to prevent the proliferation of rogue networks, some companies have already brought in sanctions. Many financial institutions, for example, have made it a disciplinary offence to connect an unapproved device to the fixed enterprise network. Bad idea, says Ken Dulaney, a Gartner analyst. As with any technology deployed with such ‘guerrilla’ tactics, the IT department’s best move, he advises, is to be proactive: learn the technology and be conversant with it, provide guidelines for its use and, most of all, set policies and standards early.
“Attempting to exclude any useful, popular and low-cost technology generally fails, as occurred with PDAs. It’s best to be prepared,” says Dulaney. “For enterprises, the big question mark is whether to proceed with what is available or to wait for some grand enhancement.” But he concludes that ignorance or outright prohibition of Wi-Fi would represent a missed opportunity.
Assuming these short-term concerns are overcome, many in the technology and communications industries believe that Wi-Fi will one day form an important part of a ubiquitous broadband network, comprising a variety of technologies linked together seamlessly and under-pinned by roaming agreements between service providers.
Mark de Simone, a Cisco vice president of technology, solutions and corporate marketing, calls this “the infinite LAN”. “The network is the key to sustained productivity,” he says. Sally Davis, BT’s president of managed applications and hosting, talks of “the Martini effect”, in which employees are connected to applications “anytime, any place, anywhere”. The wider the scope of the enterprise network, the bigger the gains in productivity, they say.
For that theory to be proved, however, Wi-Fi will first have to cross into the mainstream.