Andrew Buss, originally published on Computing

The notebook market started to gather steam in the early 2000s with the launch of mobile initiatives such as Intel Centrino in 2003. This spurred the development of an installed base of Wi-Fi clients where previously uptake had been low. Although some companies took a proactive approach to building out Wi-Fi networks, many companies either reacted to demand with a piecemeal infrastructure or were surprised to find that they had many unauthorised access points installed by “enterprising” users.

The performance of Wi-Fi, particularly in the early days, could be characterised as sluggish at best, and the wired network was preferred in most instances where possible. With the Wi-Fi network viewed as a convenience, the approach to integration, management and security was often treated as an afterthought.

The introduction of the second generation of Wi-Fi, 802.11g, was good in that it lifted performance a notch, but this in itself was not compelling enough to encourage proper, joined-up investment in infrastructure. The pressure to upgrade was tempered by the presence of legacy devices that could not run faster, or would interfere and result in general slowdowns on faster networks.

In the meantime, network connectivity has become so ubiquitous that it is now a critical element that many applications need to achieve full functionality. On the PC front, user expectations of performance have escalated as gigabit networks have become widespread, while the big swing to notebooks means that many employees are using them away from the desk and default to wireless.

On the mobile side there has been an explosion of new devices such as smartphones and tablets that rely entirely on wireless for connectivity. These devices are capable of running sophisticated applications and consuming rich media, just as the traditional PC is. This need for Wi-Fi as an equal partner to wired connectivity is driving the development of the blended wireless edge network.

All this, together with the escalating costs and risks that trouble existing installations, make a compelling case for upgrading to 802.11n, the latest and greatest version of Wi-Fi. Unlike its predecessors, this version is both fit for purpose – with a throughput comparable to Fast Ethernet and increased coverage to support more devices with fewer access points – and future-proof as it has only recently been ratified and no successor is immediately around the corner.

Another aspect to consider is that although the standard has only recently been ratified, devices based on the draft specification have been on the market for years. This has resulted in a large pool of 802.11n client devices that can benefit immediately from an updated infrastructure. At the same time, many of the devices with legacy Wi-Fi (802.11b and g) are approaching the end of their life and being removed from the active client base.

With up-to-date hardware and software that is being actively developed and supported, 802.11n is also easier to integrate from a security and management perspective. Older Wi-Fi kit suffers from security that is less than robust, with WEP in particular being easy to crack. With modern Wi-Fi infrastructure, access and encryption are far more secure with WPA2, especially when 802.1X is used for authentication.

If your Wi-Fi infrastructure is based mainly on older standards, now is the time to consider updating to 802.11n. Upgrading the Wi-Fi network on its own will bring many advantages, but there is also the opportunity to reconsider how the wireless and wired networks should work together, with increasing integration and compatibility.

Whether you choose to integrate the two or operate Wi-Fi as a standalone network is up to you. Integrating the management and policy across the two may not be a trivial matter, especially in multi-vendor networks. However, the demands on the wireless network may mean that developing separate management or security tools and policies, such as Network Admission Control, for each network would be cost-prohibitive. The initial pain and cost of integration may well be worth it for the longer-term benefits. In some cases, the wireless network can help to develop the wired one, as in the case of 802.1X, which is in widespread use on Wi-Fi networks but has yet to gather momentum on wired networks.

Whichever path you choose, the time is right to do something for all the above reasons. If you do it right, you’ll not only be ahead of user demand for once, but will also position yourself well for the future.

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