Will Wi-Fi kill wired Ethernet at the LAN edge?

The line is blurring between wireless LAN and Ethernet switch gear

The line is blurring between wireless LAN and Ethernet switch gear that connects end users, as vendors such as Cisco, Nortel, 3Com and others have worked to link these products into a supposedly seamless access system.

But will there ever come a time when more users are accessing enterprise networks via wireless than over wired Ethernet?

"I think WLAN will become the default network connection technology over next five to 10 years," says Craig Mathias, principal at the Farpoint Group, an Ashland, Mass.-based wireless consultancy. "I've always said that wireless should be thought of as an adjunct and not as a primary network. But we've made so much progress in the technology in recent years that there's no reason why we should not be thinking of it as a primary vehicle for access for anybody with a mobile device."

Market projections for WLAN and LAN gear suggest Mathias' prediction that WLAN will overtake wired Ethernet as the access method of choice in many organizations is probable.

Market research firm IDC predicts that the total number of enterprise-class WLAN access points shipped worldwide will grow from 1.6 million in 2006 to 11.5 million by 2010. The firm predicts managed Ethernet switch ports -- those predominantly deployed in enterprises -- will grow from 172 million to 208 million by 2010.

Wireless experts such as Mathias and others say that that anywhere from five to 20 users can connect to a WLAN access point and receive adequate service for common business tasks, such as accessing Web-based applications and e-mail. Extrapolating this in terms of WLAN shipment projections, the amount of WLAN gear shipped by 2010 worldwide could theoretically handle as many as 231 million end-users.

While this exceeds the number of wired ports projected to ship, keep in mind that a switch port could represent multiple connections on a network; a WLAN access point serving dozens of users plugs into a single switch port. (A high-speed 10G Ethernet port could aggregate network traffic for thousands of end users at the other end of a campus infrastructure.)

Increased capacity of a WLAN AP to support more users over a wider range, and improved security with technologies like 802.11n, will also make WLAN as strong a technology as Ethernet in the coming years. "We'll see an improvement in throughput, range and reliability," Mathias says. "So at that point, there's probably no good reason not to use wireless."

One network where a WLAN-dominated future may eventually play out is at the Ohio State University, which is in the process of deploying a first wave of WLAN access points, which will eventually add up to over 10,000 devices over the next several years. The school has already rolled out 3,000 access points and WLAN switches from Aruba Networks, says Bob Corbin, director of telecommunications and networking at the university, which has over 50,000 students and 27,000 faculty and staff.

"A major criteria for us was to be able to support about 100,000 concurrent WLAN connections" campus-wide, says Corbin. He estimates that an average of 10 users will be able to attach to any given access point deployed throughout the 17-acre campus -- both indoors and out - and receive a quality connection.

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Currently, with only 3,000 APs deployed, wired Ethernet is still the dominant access technology on campus, with an estimated 40,000 Ethernet ports deployed, Corbin says.

"It's hard to gauge right now," whether WLAN access will ever overtake wired access, Corbin says. "Probably 90 percent of students at Ohio State come to campus with a cell phone, and most see the value of mobility. My gut feeling is that as the wireless network propagates, more and more students will understand quickly that they can access the network anywhere, and that there's real value in carrying around a wireless PDA or laptop."

However, with faculty and staff working in offices, wired Ethernet will probably remain a dominant access technology in the near future, Corbin adds. A majority of such employees work on fixed PCs connected via RJ-45 Ethernet ports.

"We're really looking at wireless as not a replacement, but as an overlay to the wired network," Corbin says.

The flipside to the wireless trend at OSU is Blue Cross of Idaho, U.S., where a majority of employees work on desktop PCs plugged into good old RJ-45 Ethernet ports. A single common area, used for training and meetings, offers WLAN access. Otherwise, WLANs are not permitted.

"We wouldn't shy away from wireless if we identified a real business need for it," said Jan Marshall, manager of technical and network services for the healthcare organization, in an earlier interview. "We just haven't seen one on the campus." Marshall estimates he can secure and operate a mostly wired Ethernet network at a much lower cost than a WLAN infrastructure.

This thinking falls in line with most businesses, according to a recent Gartner survey, where 60 percent of IT professionals felt that current WLAN security was not adequate.

Incidentally, WLANs are even banned at the Massachusetts, U.S. headquarters of Network World, where all employees plug into a wired network.