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Air Time: Upgrading to 802.11n: Better Late Than Early

Here's some advice for IT pros contemplating a short-term upgrade to 802.11n: Get back in touch with your risk-averse self.

Many experienced IT Professionals have split managerial personalities. At one pole is the technical optimist, who believes business problems can be streamlined, if not solved, by applying the right technology. At the opposite pole, there's a voice crying, "Not so fast." Picking the right time to deploy new technology, when return on investment is maximized and organizational risk is minimized, is never easy.

In most cases, risk aversion is grounded in bad experiences with half-baked technology. Like a baseball player in the middle of a hot streak at the plate, it's easy to be optimistic about technology solutions if all your projects have turned out successfully. But few among us have a perfect batting average. Now it's time for many of you to deal with the latest wireless technology, 802.11n. My advice: the longer you wait, the easier it will be.

Some emerging technologies offer easy ways to pad your managerial batting average. Ethernet provides one example. Yes, there have been costs associated with upgrades to faster versions of 802.3, but the benefits are often easily measured, and the architectural complexity of upgrades is usually modest. You might debate whether it makes sense to spend a little extra money for Gigabit to the desktop, but the truth is, either way, it's a safe decision.

Wireless LANs are different. With the exception of certain vertical market applications, establishing compelling ROI for Wi-Fi in the enterprise is anything but easy, and the risks--financial, security, scalability, availability--are obvious to anyone who takes a hard look. And for as long as wireless data transmission has been technically feasible, it's been clear that wired networking solutions offer better performance and reliability--usually at a lower cost. There's a reason the terms "broadband access" and "guided media" almost always go hand in glove.

Today, it's fashionable to envision a day when Wi-Fi--or perhaps some successor technology--will be the primary mode of enterprise network access. We've all seen people use Wi-Fi even when a superior Ethernet connection is a short cable away--mostly because Wi-Fi is good enough to get the job done. Now that Wi-Fi is getting faster, the prospect of replacing Ethernet, rather than supplementing it, is beginning to look more appealing.

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