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802.11n Is Here. Get Ready For A Wire-Free Enterprise

It's an oversimplification to say that 802.11n heralds the era of the wire-free office--though with top speeds of up to 300 Mbps, it's clearly a catalyst for cutting the cords that tether users to their desks. Yet there's no question that within a few years, Wi-Fi will become the new network edge for companies interested in saving money, attracting top talent, and increasing security.

Of course, pure-play wireless LAN vendors have been saying for a while now that wired Ethernet to the desktop is dead, despite lingering concerns about reliability, the suitability of WLANs for telephony, the complexity of managing mixed wireless and wired networks, branch office and teleworker support ... and, oh yeah, the fact that the legacy infrastructure is chugging along just fine.

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Business technology managers have long weighed these factors against the most touted benefit of Wi-Fi: increased productivity. The efficiency studies are many and the refrain generally the same: Wireless keeps information at employees' fingertips, enables quicker decision making, reduces downtime, and enables collaboration. But in today's tight economic environment, the savings picture is just as compelling. Intel estimates--and we agree--that moving to a largely wireless network can reduce capital costs 40% to 50% and operational costs 20% to 30%. Luc Roy, VP of enterprise mobility at Siemens Enterprise Communications, cites a Canadian government customer that's saving $500 per event for moves, additions, and changes.

With the rising price of all modes of travel, teleworking is looking mighty attractive as well, and IT can now extend wireless to remote sites. Aruba Networks recently announced an access point, developed with Avaya and called the Mobile Remote Access Point, that can use any broadband connection to provide secure access to business resources for both data and voice. All the employee needs is a single- or dual-mode phone, or a softphone on a wireless laptop. Remote and branch offices also are obvious places to take advantage of all-wireless access (see story, "Next-Gen IT: Building Better Branch-Office Wireless"), especially as management tools emerge for monitoring mixed-vendor WLANs (see story, "Rollout: AirWave's WLAN Management Suite Put To The Test").

Cisco Systems, Motorola, and others now offer 3G interfaces that can provide backups for branch offices and locations with minimal WAN connectivity, or for failover of critical applications. And WLAN security can beat that of most wired LANs--yes, you read that right. Sites looking into desktop virtualization should do fine on an all-Wi-Fi network as well, thanks to the small packet sizes inherent in virtual desktop infrastructures.

Thinking About Vo-Fi?
Our report examines the integration of VoIP, cellular telephony, and Wi-Fi.

Motorola sees 802.11n as an inflection point in the industry and has adopted the slogan "Wireless by default and wired by exception." It and other vendors are practicing what they preach, deploying ubiquitous WLANs in their own offices.

Should you follow suit?

Although wireless vendors such as Motorola are happy to promote the wire-free office concept, Ethernet switch sellers, including Cisco and Hewlett-Packard, approach the concept with caution. That's not surprising: Switch vendors stand to lose big money as we move away from Ethernet to the desktop. Even if companies pay the manufacturer's suggested retail price for enterprise-class 802.11n gear, it's still much less expensive per user than a new 10/100/1,000-Mbps switch deployment with $250-per-drop wiring costs.

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