Setting up WLANs: Good for clients, good for business

Setting up wireless LANs offers network consultants and integrators new business opportunities that can lead to additional future services.

By Yuval Shavit, Features Writer

With more companies considering setting up a wireless LAN (WLAN) for network connectivity, you may be thinking about complementing your existing services with WLAN consulting or integration services. WLANs can provide clients with added convenience, and improvements to WLANs are lowering some of the technology's traditional adoption inhibitors.

Wireless started out as a luxury available only in certain areas, like conference rooms or cafeterias, but some companies are starting to use it more broadly for everyday connectivity. About 15% to 20% of enterprises use WLANs to connect computers that may be used in mission-critical situations, like payroll or pulling up customer records, said Craig Mathias, principal at Farpoint Group, an Ashland, Mass., analyst firm specializing in wireless technology.

The main reason companies install WLANs is for the convenience factor, said Lisa Phifer, vice president of Core Competence Inc., a Chester Springs, Pa.-based networking and security consultancy. Setting up a wireless LAN can increase productivity by giving people easier access to data, Phifer said. For instance, employees can bring laptops to meetings and have instant access to information instead of having to look it up later and follow up through more meetings or email chains.

Security is one of the biggest concerns that companies have historically had about setting up a wireless LAN, but Phifer said that security is becoming less of an issue as the technology matures. WPA and WPA2 encryption can help, but you should make sure that the entire network -- not just the air links -- is secure, Mathias said. That should include encryption across the network, VPNs and strong, two-factor authentication methods, Mathias said.

As WLAN technology gains traction, companies are starting to worry less about security and more about performance. Companies that are planning on setting up a wireless LAN as the primary way employees get online need connections that are reliable, fast and have adequate capacity, Phifer said.

Many of those concerns are addressed by the latest WLAN standard, 802.11n, which promises a data rate potentially as high as 540 Mbps, with typical rates expected to be between 100 and 200 Mbps. Mathias said he expects adoption to accelerate in the next couple of years, with the 802.11n wireless standard removing the last barriers of adoption for most companies.

Although the 802.11n standard is not complete, the Wi-Fi Alliance, which governs the 802.11 standards, has released Draft 2 of the specifications. Most vendors have started shipping products that conform to this draft, and many experts predict that the final draft will need only firmware patches -- not new hardware.

802.11n has longer range and better throughput than the previous standards, 802.11b and 802.11g, and both Phifer and Mathias recommend companies buy n-compatible equipment. 802.11n-compatible access points will still work with 802.11b and g devices, but you may have to configure the access points so legacy devices don't drag the 802.11n devices' performance down, Phifer said.

Setting up a wireless network can be cheaper than setting up a wired network, Phifer and Mathias said. Many laptops already have wireless cards built in, and wireless access points could actually be cheaper than installing and maintaining Ethernet wires. Wireless also makes it easier to move devices, including shared items like printers, Phifer said.

Depending on how cutting-edge your clients are, setting up a wireless LAN could open the door to further business opportunities for network consultants and integrators. Voice over wireless LAN (VoWLAN) -- an implementation of VoIP over Wi-Fi -- is one of the more common uses of WLANs beyond the basics. Companies are also starting to look into using WLANs for PDAs. The ultimate goal is to create a unified system for all of a company's devices, Mathias said.

Deploying a WLAN throughout an office takes planning, especially if you want to ensure complete coverage and good availability. In our next installment, we'll look at how you can help your client plan where to deploy access points and some of the challenges involved in installing a wireless LAN beyond a conference room.

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