WLAN Innovations and Higher Education

Universities play an enormous role in the refinement of enterprise WLAN technologies.

June 7, 2004

2 Min Read
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Land of the LAN

In the early days, a certain "build it and they will come" mentality pervaded most progressive institutions. Then, when local area networking caught on, universities were a natural environment to take on all the reliability, scalability and security challenges. The computer science Ph.Ds had to find a way to work with the campus IT guys--an interesting bunch of refugees whose backgrounds ranged from engineering to music--to merge theory and practice.

Along the way, lots of companies were born, from Cisco to Yahoo, started by smart, young university entrepreneurs bent on making it big. As the bubble economy bulged, all it took was a good idea and some "adult supervision" and the venture capitalists would be there with money.

Today, entrepreneurs must figure out a way to get noticed in a market of billion-dollar incumbents. The enterprise wireless LAN market, for instance, is dominated by the likes of Cisco, 3Com and Symbol.

Much of the real innovation, however, has close ties to university research labs, and even when the R&D is done in-house at large corporations, it's often spearheaded by researchers not long removed from academia. In a recent presentation, a senior manager at wireless chip heavyweight Broadcom joked that the company had so many Ph.Ds, it could transform itself into a university if the chip market got too soft.Beyond Basic Research

It's well-understood that universities are idea factories fundamental to the development of network technologies. Government, foundations and industry fund some pretty esoteric basic research. At Syracuse University, this triad is financing work on wireless grids, exploring the intersection of wireless data technology and high-performance grid supercomputing. This technology could emerge into the next big thing, or it could end up as a reference in obscure scholarly journals. That's just the nature of research.

Beyond that, universities play an enormous role in the refinement of enterprise WLAN technologies. They offer a scale--both in physical size and number of users--that provides immense challenges to system designers. It's no wonder that a milestone of any emerging wireless vendor is to align itself with a high- profile university. And, apparently, there's room for more than one vendor at a university table: I've recently seen both Chantry and Airespace touting their Cornell relationship.

Some business types are quick to remind us of the differing needs of higher education and commercial enterprises: Just because a technology meets the needs of Wireless U. doesn't mean it solves my business problems. That's less true today than it once was. Find me a university that isn't a business in disguise, with almost all the same needs, and I'll show you one that's struggling to pay its bills.

Dave Molta is NETWORK COMPUTING's senior technology editor. Write to him at [email protected]1022

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