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The Future Is Wireless, but Enterprises Hesitate

Enterprise Wi-Fi traffic is rising, and the 802.11ac standard will put radio waves on par with wired networks, but IT isn't ready to go all in.

Despite clear indications that wireless access is the future for enterprise networks, and with the superfast 802.11ac specification soon to be ratified, a majority of respondents still see WLANs as complementary to wired network access. That's according to InformationWeek's 2013 Wireless LAN Survey, which tallied 419 IT pros' plans for and attitudes toward wireless technology.

When asked to predict the evolution of WLANs in their environments, 58% expect to retain side-by-side WLANs and LANs--an increase of 3% from the 2010 survey. Just 21% see WLANs gradually driving out wired connections within five years.

Some WLAN skepticism is warranted. As the report's author, Kurt Marko, notes, even though the current 802.11n standard improved WLAN speeds over 11a/b/g, and wireless vendors are squeezing as much throughput as they can from available spectrum, WLANs struggle with reliability, security and performance demands.

What's more, the situation figures to get worse in the face of an impending logjam. With more employees bring mobile devices into the enterprise, the amount of WLAN traffic is on the rise. Marko wrote "Of the 97% of WLAN users who measure traffic, 21% say volume has escalated over the last year, with 34% seeing increases of 25% or more; 12% have seen 50% or greater growth."

"Despite these sometimes dramatic upticks, most organizations are still in reactive mode. Their primary coping mechanism: throwing hardware at the problem," wrote Marko. "Many aren't facing the reality of a future workforce that views mobility as a commodity."

Case in point: When respondents were asked how long they expected to maintain their older 802.11 a, b and g networks, 63% said it would be at least two years before they moved to replace them. That's barely a change from two years ago, when 66% expressed similar patience with their aging WLANs.

And even though the report indicates that 89% of organizations rely on a wireless LAN to provide network access, up from 75% two years earlier, one has to wonder about the 11% who don't, especially the 2% who answered, "We think wireless is a bad idea--we just don't trust it for one or more reasons."

That said, some companies are pursuing aggressive wireless strategies. For instance, 45% of respondents said they have plans to deploy 802.11ac gear as soon as the spec has been ratified and products are available. (For insights into what 11ac brings to the table, see "11ac's First Wave: What to Expect.")

Ultimately, Marko's report suggests that companies that downplay wireless might want to rethink that strategy. He recommends that companies take the following steps in preparation for what he says will be an "all-wireless future":

-Budget for increased mobile use and adoption of 802.11ac;

-Reassess network-use policies to limit bandwidth-hogging, non-business activities;

-Consider cloud-based management, configuration and security services to simplify WLAN deployments;

-Monitor pending FCC rulings that are expected to open up as much as 195 Mb of 5 GHz spectrum for the 802.11 spec; and

-Look for creative new ways of using wireless devices to deliver ROI.

In other words, if you haven't done so already, it's time to evaluate your WLAN strategy for 2013 and beyond.

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