The wireless LAN market is unusual in enterprise IT: It deals primarily with end users and features an unreliable physical medium, and getting a wireless design right requires experience beyond what most systems administrators posses. But all that is about to change, as leading WLAN chipmaker Narrowcom unveils Wi-FiBASE-T, a wired variant of the familiar protocol. By leveraging commodity Ethernet hardware, Wi-FiBASE-T reduces cost and improves reliability and performance. The initial wave of products should be released around the first of April.
Wi-Fi has become ubiquitous as a client connection medium. The majority of end user connectivity relies on 2.4GHz 802.11g, and the technology has matured to the point where it works reliably, if not predictably. Although the average coffee shop or Chicago-area airport is easily overwhelmed by just a few Wi-Fi users, wireless engineers now have the skills and technology to make the protocol stand up to any challenge short of an Apple keynote presentation.
But Wi-Fi performance can leave much to be desired. Throughput is hampered by backward compatibility, microwave popcorn and security cameras, and most seventh graders can accurately pitch a note out of range of the average access point. Plus, only anointed wizards possessing dark knowledge have the ability to put together a successful WLAN. The market is ripe for some new thinking, but multiple spatial connections, a switch to 5GHz and the removal of load-bearing walls haven't been successful.
The Wi-FiBASE-T concept was born at an offsite team meeting in Las Vegas, when one engineer was heard remarking to another, "This Wi-Fi stuff would be so much easier if we didn't have all these radio waves to worry about." Shortly after, a skunkworks team began experimenting with other media that could transmit 802.11 signals. After experiments with laser light and hemp rope proved unsuccessful, the Narrowcom engineers hit on the idea of re-purposing the twisted-pair copper wiring often found in data centers and corporate offices.
Leveraging this commodity medium proved successful beyond the dreams of the wireless engineers involved. They were able to create a reliable, high-bandwidth physical medium for their established protocols, ramping up performance to nearly 100 megabits.