The time is right for wireless

9 Mar 2005

Wireless technology, whether it’s 3G, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, Wi-Max or any of its other variants, is easily the most hyped area of technology in the past few years.

While some of the aforementioned technologies have still to deliver on their early promise and others have had to scale back their predictions, wireless networking or Wi-Fi has had a massive impact on the way people use their PCs as a business tool.

For those who haven’t been paying attention, Wi-Fi aka wireless local area network (WLAN), is the name for an industry standard that allows laptops, PDAs, mobile phones and desktop computers to connect to a LAN using radio waves without the need for a wired connection. It is based around the IEEE 802.11, which comes in a number of different flavours operating at different frequencies (2.4GHz and 5.8GHz) and speeds (11Mbps and 54Mbps).

Largely due to the support of Intel, which has included the necessary hardware as standard in its Centrino technology set, the number of “end points” or devices that are Wi-Fi enabled has mushroomed in the past year. As a result the time is right for businesses to consider how they can best integrate the technology into their business.

According to John Stone, chief technical officer with Cisco Ireland, wireless has become an integral part of any network infrastructure upgrade. While security was initially based around the discredited Wired Equivalent Privacy standard that delayed the widespread adoption in business circles, Stone believes the security issue has been largely addressed.

“The standard enterprise is now deploying multiple access points that are linked back to a secure server,” says Stone. “That can be the same used for remote access so you can save money on administration and users can have the same username and password for all connections.” He says the move to Advanced Encryption Standard, which supports much higher levels of encryption and more sophisticated features, has answered the security questions.

Despite this, 3Com Ireland country manager Ray O’Connor believes that some large enterprises are still delaying wireless deployments due to security concerns. This is despite the fact that wireless networks can now be made as secure as any traditional wired LAN,” says O’Connor. “The most expensive part of wireless networking now is securing it, as the devices themselves are now so cheap.”

According to Stone, the main concerns around a rollout are different depending on whether public access in the form of a hotspot or access to a private network for employees is being provided. If the network is purely for internal use the main issue is ensuring the client software is installed and configured correctly — a task that can be handled by a central update tool rather than having to manually install it on all machines.

“If it is to provide public access in the building, the important thing is that the wireless access points can support two networks on the one point,” says Stone. “The networks should be separate from a security point of view but be just one physical network.”

One Cisco customer that has gone down this route is Freshways Sandwiches, which supplies catering for Aer Lingus from its Finglas production facility. It runs a private and public network as well as channelling its voice traffic over a single physical network.

O’Connor says that SMEs and the hospitality sector are the two most enthusiastic adopters of wireless.

While Eircom has been championing the benefits of it for consumers that take up its broadband service, 3Com has teamed up with Dublin internet service provider Netsource to court the SME market. Under the deal businesses can purchase 3Com WLAN hardware — in this case a four-port wireless router with built-in firewall — at a reduced price when they sign up for Netsource’s DSL service.

“We have observed a growing demand for this kind of wireless networking package from our customers and resellers,” says O’Connor. “Seamless connectivity is vital for business users today and WLAN is one of the most flexible and effective IT tools there is to establish a competitive advantage. There are also demonstrable cost savings from more efficient use of resources and infrastructure.”

“Most of the hotels initially went with a managed service from the telcos but now they are moving towards providing the service themselves,” says O’Connor. “The equipment is now so low cost it makes sense for them to do it themselves so they have the flexibility of whether to bill for the service or not. In the US it’s being offered free to enhance the service offered — once you spend so much or you are a resident you will get it for free. The owners just want to control it so that it’s not abused.”

3Com customers in the hospitality sector that have already gone down the route of providing Wi-Fi access as a free service to their customers include the Lynch Hotel and Bewley’s Hotel Groups.

By John Collins