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Art Wittmann
Art Wittmann
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Practical Analysis: 802.11 -- The Blu-Ray Of Wireless

While useful, 802.11n is unlikely to be game-changing technology in most enterprise settings.

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Art Wittmann This issue of InformationWeek is all about serving the needs of end users. The "Set Them Free" story and the "Netbooks Vs. Notebooks" story do a great job of exploring end-user equipment options--a discussion that I think is long overdue.

One issue that I've hesitated to have InformationWeek Analytics explore is enterprise Wi-Fi. There's been some product action over the past year or so, but the market has been awaiting the final ratification of the 802.11n standard, which boosts speed by about a factor of six and greatly increases the potential coverage area of each access point. Now that the spec's ratified, here's a glimpse at what about 780 of you responding to our 2009 InformationWeek Analytics WLAN survey survey think about it.

The majority of responses come from larger companies, with just 44% from businesses that have fewer than 500 employees. Another thing of note is Cisco's dominance in the market. Its controller-based and autonomous access point systems ranked first and second in our survey, followed by--and this is the really surprising part--Linksys, D-Link, and Netgear. All the other names you'd expect to see in an enterprise wireless survey each have less than 10% market presence. A final result that I'll throw in here is that just 35% say they're using 802.11 on large scale and increasing their use, while 41% say they're using it only for specific purposes--the rest are either still evaluating or have written off Wi-Fi.

My take on this is that 11n eventually will be widely implemented as a secondary means of connectivity because of its greater coverage and higher bandwidth but that it won't be a game-changing technology (something the report's author doesn't fully agree with). We're in an environment where 1-Gbps Ethernet to the desktop is common and dirt cheap, and where every device with a Wi-Fi radio also has an Ethernet port. In most business-class buildings, if you're going to plug in your laptop, you might as well take advantage of the Ethernet port sitting right next to the plug. Performance will be better and security issues for wired connectivity will be handled better in most organizations.

But what about truly nomadic users? Surely, they'll benefit from better performance, right? That's true, and in certain settings -- like factories, hospitals, and warehouses -- there will be strategic benefits to using 11n. But for the user that needs to be mobile both inside and outside of the corporate walls, 3G wireless is going to be a lot more attractive. It'll also mean one less thing for your IT staff and help desk to troubleshoot -- which is always a good thing.

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While I'm sure they exist, there aren't too many applications that lack for the speed of 11n. In most cases, what enterprise apps need is everywhere, always on, reliable wireless networking--and speeds of a few megabits per second are just fine. If it's the price of 3G data plans that stands in the way of such acceptance, then they'll come down. We're paying four to 10 times as much as people in Europe are paying for 3G data. And, while data plans are expensive, so is fielding a fully functional 11n network that's intended to be used as primary connectivity for a large number of users.

So my prediction, now that 11n has arrived, is that it'll get about same reception in the enterprise that Blu-ray DVD has gotten in the home market. Just as on-demand high-def video services have greatly gutted the demand for Blu-ray, 3G is going to limit the strategic appeal of 11n. The full report is available at: informationweek.com/analytics/80211n.

Art Wittmann is director of InformationWeek Analytics, a portfolio of decision-support tools and analyst reports. Write to him at awittmann@techweb.com.

To find out more about Art Wittmann, please visit his page.

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