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The Case for Hybrid Networks: Wired + Wireless

Over the past three years, the introduction of 5G broadband; the new IPv6 protocol, which doesn't limit the number of IP addresses you can assign; and Wi-Fi 6, which increases bandwidth and the speed at which Wi-Fi payloads travel within enterprise walls; have turned the heads of CIOs and network managers.

Why not move more network traffic to wireless technology?

The case for wireless is indeed compelling. However, there are also several disadvantages.

#1 You’re already wired with ethernet

Yes, you can bypass all of the ethernet cabling you've done through the years, but if the buildings that your company uses are still in use and you already have serviceable and reliable communications, why change?

#2 Security

It's easier to "batten down the hatches" for security on an internal ethernet network that you can wholly control. Wireless technology deployed within or outside of your premises, especially if it uses public Internet, provides continuous opportunities for viruses and malware to enter your network. 

#3 Ethernet delivers

Many sites still use 1 Gbps (gigabytes per second) ethernet that runs over a Cat-5 cable. This is adequate to handle many enterprise applications. If more speed is needed, you can move to 10 Gbps ethernet that runs over a Cat-6 cable. You will have to replace the Cat-5 cabling and upgrade to Cat-6, but cable is cheap.

So why would you want to go wireless?

By 2025, the U.S. IoT (Internet of Things) market is expected to be at $261.35 billion. As companies adopt IoT, they want the flexibility of deployment that enables them to place IoT in the field, in factories and in warehouses, and in mobile work forces and fleets. You can't be tethered to a wired communications technology like ethernet and do all that.

Companies also like wireless because of ease of use and deployment issues. Using wireless, it's easy for an employee to download an enterprise app onto a smartphone or to log the status of a truck of produce that is en route.

Now with the help of wireless advancements like IPv6, the number of devices that you can hang on the Internet and on internal Wi-Fi networks is virtually limitless. This is the perfect world for broad deployments of IoT such as sensors, actuators, headphones, iPhones, routers, and drones – and as more 5G broadband rolls out, communications bandwidth and speed will pick up.

Nevertheless, for a majority of companies, there are still obstacles that must be overcome.

To start with, many organizations are still on the IPv4 protocol. With IPv4, there is a finite number of IP addresses available to be assigned to new devices, so if you want to deploy a substantial amount of IoT in the field and on-premises, running out of IP addresses to assign to them is a concern.

Second, security is a constant concern on wireless networks. New malware and viruses are launched each day. It's difficult to infect wired, ethernet networks, but wireless technology, with its plethora of low security devices and its reliance on the public Internet, is vulnerable.

Third, there are latency and quality of communications issues that occur much more frequently on wireless than on wired networks.

A plan for deployment

A majority of enterprises are finding that the optimal path for network evolution is to use a hybrid approach to network communications that includes both wireless and ethernet.

For many, wireless technology makes the most sense for in-the-field and mobile network deployments. The case for ethernet is inside the walls of enterprises and also in outlying facilities that are of substantial size.

There are also certain internal applications and systems that make the most sense when they use ethernet networks. Among these are:

  • Core systems such as accounting, ERP, CAD/CAM, purchasing, and office applications, where either large payloads of data will be routed over the network or stay-in-place workstations will be used by employees
  • Central data centers, where cabling is already in place, security is critical, and large payloads of data are being transported over the network.

In other cases, wireless technology is the better approach. Examples of this are:

  • Warehousing operations, where inventory checkins and checkouts, bar code scanning, and also tracking of trucks in the yard require mobile operations with handheld and handsfree devices
  • Industrial, facility, and in-field IoT, which uses an assortment of untethered routers, devices, sensors, and equipment to perform operations that may be far from wired networks.

For the best combination of speed and security, ethernet is still a good choice, especially if your enterprise facilities are already cabled. If there is a need to upgrade to Cat-6 cable, or if cabling over the years has become so convoluted and “unmappable" that you no longer can build on it, moving to wireless networks might be a sensible alternative.

However, even with new wireless technologies like Wi-Fi-6 coming online, it’s unlikely that most enterprises will pursue a “rip and replace” approach that entirely supplants ethernet. This is paving the way for hybrid networks that use a mix of ethernet and wireless technologies.

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