Winning them over with wireless

2 May 2003

When first launched, wireless networking, aka wireless local area networks (WLAN), aka Wi-Fi, aka IEEE 802.11b, was horrendously expensive, making it suitable only for larger companies with expansive IT budgets. In recent years, however, the technology has come down in price dramatically with base stations costing hundreds, rather than thousands, of euro and network interface cards (NICs) costing a hundred or so euro rather than several times that.

And now that Intel has launched the Centrino chipset for mobile computing you can expect to see more laptop computers with WLAN capability out of the box.

The idea of WLAN is to allow computers to communicate with each other and other network devices without cables. Typically, a wireless network consists of a base station, which may or may not be connected to a wired network via a standard Ethernet hub. Some base stations may even act as hubs. Typical speed for a 802.11b wireless network is 11Mbps (megabits per second). New versions of the standard 802.11a and 802.11g offer higher speeds. 802.11a, however, is not compatible with 802.11b, while 802.11g is.

One medium-sized company using WLAN technology is Doherty Advertising of Baggot Street in Dublin. Employing 50 people, Doherty Advertising is the largest Irish-owned advertising agency in the country. Andrew O’Donoghue (pictured), Doherty Advertising’s IT manager, is the person responsible for making sure the company’s wireless network does the job.

“The main reason we went with wireless networking, to be honest, is that in a Georgian building in Dublin 2 space is at a premium,” he says. “As a result, we don’t have a lot of room. Our company has expanded significantly in the last two years and rather than rewire offices when people move around and because we own two buildings, we decided wireless looked like a positive way of reducing wiring and the costs associated with it.”

Doherty Advertising has a mixed computing platform. About 75pc of its computers are Macintoshes and the remaining 25pc are Windows-based PCs. Consequently, any solution chosen has to work seamlessly across both platforms. Because Macintosh was the majority platform, O’Donoghue looked first at Airport, Apple’s WLAN solution. Typetec, an Apple reseller specialising in the prepress market, lent him the equipment on an approval basis.

“It was so easy to use, I configured it myself in about 25 minutes. The security was very easy to manage. I wandered across the road to our other office with the laptop they lent me and I could still see the Doherty network. I was convinced,” he says.

O’Donoghue was also convinced from a cost point of view. “It only cost around €100 per person to get them up and running. In many cases, it was simply a matter of opening the laptop and installing the card. We upgraded 12 laptops, eight of them PowerBooks and four Wintel, and six desktops, one iMac and five G4 Power Macintoshes. We also installed two base stations. Rewiring the network every time we needed to reorganise would costs us thousands of euro. Even with a decent contractor, you’re talking €100 per new or moved socket. So for us, wireless is a godsend.”

Getting the Wintel machines to work with the Apple Airport equipment was not a problem, according to O’Donoghue. “Apart from the fact that they were a little bit more difficult to open, there were no problems. We put in generic wireless NICs and powered them up and they worked perfectly with Apple’s base stations.”

The success of the WLAN project allowed the company to introduce hot desking. Doherty Advertising account executives spend a lot of their time out of the office meeting clients. With space at such premium, the company looked at the concept of not assigning desks to the account executives. “When hot desking was first mentioned, we yawned and said we would think about it,” recalls O’Donoghue. “However, it has worked out very well. The account executives come in, wander into the conference room, where they can log onto the network, do their printing and be on their way.”

In January of this year, Apple introduced Airport Extreme. Based on the 802.11g standard, it offers speeds of up to 54Mbps and is backwardly compatible with existing Airport infrastructure. O’Donoghue recently bought a new Airport Extreme base station and although he won’t see the speed benefits until the entire network is upgraded there are already advantages.

“Airport Extreme allows you to fit an external antenna. Although, we were already happy with the connection between the two buildings I fitted a Dr Bott’s omni-directional antenna to improve the signal. Because we have a bit of an investment in the old Airport cards, we will migrate everyone eventually. We have two of the new 17-inch PowerBooks [with built-in Airport Extreme] on order.”

By David Stewart