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Cutting the Network Cord
The Burton Group issued a report entitled "802.11n: The End of Ethernet?"
which asserts that 802.11n is the first local area wireless technology that
can replace wired Ethernet connections. The detailed report makes an honest
assessment of the limitations of Wi-Fi, and discusses performance
(throughput, latency, and jitter), security (eavesdropping, DoS, network
intrusion), management (moves/adds/changes, typical tasks, tools), and staff
training and experience, and costs.
With throughput speeds of greater that 100 Mbps with today's
implementations, and claims of 150 Mbps in 2008, 802.11n promises
approximately equivalent speeds to Fast Ethernet. Author Paul DeBeasi uses
real test results from WLAN testing vendor VeriWave to compare 802.11n to
Gigabit Ethernet, the competing wired local area network standard. An 8 MB
file which may have taken 20 seconds to transfer with 802.11g can be
accessed in 4 seconds with 802.11n, consistent with the 4 to 6x throughput
claims of enterprise Wi-Fi vendors. Latency and jitter results, while
higher than gigabit Ethernet, of course, are still within acceptable values
for all but the most demanding environments such as engineering CAD/CAM,
graphic design, and video production.
Wi-Fi security remains a red flag for many IT departments, even though it
has largely been addressed by IEEE and Wi-Fi Alliance standards. But
DeBeasi doesn't stick his head in the sand and ignore the stark realities of
802.11 wireless: it's an unguided medium in a unlicensed frequency range
susceptible at a minimum to deliberate interference, and has layer-2
management and control frame concerns addressed only in part by the work of
IEEE's TGw. That said, there are wireless IDS/IPS products that can help
detect most and mitigate many of those security concerns.
Management comparisons between wireless and wired Ethernet also result in a
mixed evaluation. On the one hand wireless networks eliminate adding or
moving cable runs and facilitate anytime, anywhere connectivity, but these
laptops require client utilities to control the wireless card and manage
connection profiles plus possibly an additional authentication component.
Then there are the hard and soft costs: equipment purchase, staff training,
and confidence building.
The report's title is surprisingly bold in comparison to this report, but
perhaps it will cause enterprises to take notes. If you aren't going
all-wireless, build the coverage and most of the capacity in such a way that
someday you could support your user population. Even if that doesn't happen
next year, you'll be providing your users good service now. There still
remain two tethered items: desk phones and desktop PCs. Only a few people
list their mobile phone as their primary phone, and fewer still their only
one. Until enterprise FMC (fixed mobile convergence) becomes the norm or
users grow comfortable with soft phones, the desk phone will remain wired.
And if that's wired, it's little more work to pull another CAT5e. Though
many organizations have outfitted their executive staff and traveling
workforce with laptops, almost every organization has those 9-to-5 employees
that always work in the office and have been outfitted with a desktop PC
with fixed monitor. Unless these are clustered together and remain wired,
an organization that truly wants to cut the cord will need to make a
intentional effort to convert these staid users to laptops, too, or attach
USB wireless adapters.
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