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Untangling the wireless web

For most companies, wireless connectivity within the office, and mobile access to data and applications outside of the office, has been a boon for productivity.

Gone are the days of duplicate paper-based transaction histories, or the need for highly skilled staff to spend hours at their desks filling out forms before knocking off. Gone are dead times - when it was impossible to contact key staff members because they were on the road - and tedious meetings where staff flicked nervously through piles of paper in search of a specific reference.

However, keeping us connected usually involves an uncanny alliance between any number of Wi-Fi standards, a smattering of Bluetooth, and a handful of contracts with telecommunications carriers. Multiplied out across your average company, and wireless connectivity starts to look like a real headache.

Senior analyst for research group Forrester, Tim Sheedy, said the level of complexity associated with wireless connectivity was a creeping issue within many companies, as multiple wireless connections led to unnecessary cost and risk.

"The main challenges for most of these companies lies around providing consistent security and billing," he said. "In fact, many companies have no idea how much wireless connectivity outside the office is actually costing them, because often people go out and connect their own devices then charge these back to the company."

In a similar vein, it is not uncommon for some of the more tech savvy employees to add their own wireless connection into the back of the company's servers without applying appropriate security protocols. This is particularly true of Bluetooth, a wireless technology largely associated with consumer rather than corporate environments.

"There is still a propensity for some employees to pop into their local Harvey Norman, grab an access point and just shove it in the network without checking with the IT manager," professional services manager and senior IT consultant at systems integrator Tele-IP, Michael Risos, said. "Not only do IT managers need to be thinking about intrusion from outside their own environment but also intrusion from devices they might not even know they have."

However, Sheedy also pointed to emerging technologies which provide access to internal and external networks as presenting a significant challenge. "Security is still the single biggest issue for corporate wireless networks, particularly as we are starting to see devices which run on multiple networks," he said. "Shoring up wireless networks means understanding the capabilities of all the different devices to make sure the networks they control are completely secure." Rather than attempting to standardise devices, or implement a blanket usage policy, many organisations, according to Sheedy, are opting to leave their wireless network fairly open, and locate the security on their applications and devices.

This being the case, and with no sign of wireless connectivity converging to a single standard, the channel needs to understand how and why the complexity currently exists, and what can be done to simplify it.

Applications overdrive

At the core of the issue is the fact that applications, rather than overall strategy, are driving the adoption of wireless technology. Although systems integrators and network consultants could play a role in simplifying wireless networking, most are brought in to manage a single application over managing the entire network.

"Systems integrators rarely deal with the mobility requirements of the whole organisation: they play a role in the connection of specific applications, but there's not much change to manage the relationships with different vendors," Sheedy said.

Managing director of network integrator Matrix CNI, Deni Saupin, agreed, and said the levels of complexity currently being experienced in the wireless connectivity space were largely driven by customer demand for diverse applications.

"At the moment wireless adoption is still all about applications," Saupin said. "I don't see anybody putting in wireless infrastructure because everyone else is doing it. They do it because there is a piece of software that will help them to become more competitive, and in that sense it's always a strategic move based on applications." Although there is often a strategic reason for adopting the core technology, these short-term goals effectively overwhelm the strategic adoption of new technology. Even companies that attempt to plan the progressive adoption of emerging technology often find themselves at the mercy of the demands of specifi c departments.

"Wireless adoption is still haphazard - companies are being pushed to provide it as a service to employees or guests or contractors, so it's implemented in a hurry without enough planning," Saupin said. "Until there's an application that requires it they don't think about it too much, and then when they do it's all done in a hurry."

Techhead Interactive CEO, Tim Fussell, said that at the same time as demand for new technologies was largely driven by applications, infrastructure upgrades were often driven by hardware standardisation. "Wireless network cards are built into the laptops, so companies are forced to upgrade their wireless network every time they upgrade their laptops," he said. "And in most cases they are still running the old laptops as well, so they end up with a wireless LAN running a range of different standards."

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While he conceded most companies were reticent to free up capital expenditure on new technology, Fussell argued they would ultimately pay through increased operational costs what they failed to invest in upfront.

"What managers have to understand is every employee's time is valuable. Giving somebody a three year-old machine with a very slow connection will cost you dearly because they simply won't be as productive as they could be," he said.

Simplifying the wireless LAN environment may also come down to the way in which resellers bundle their offerings. Fussell said he had discovered a way to encourage his customer base to maximise productivity through standardisation.

"We have teamed up with Microsoft, HP and Telstra to create the ultimate mobility bundle," he said. "We combine the laptops and wireless network cards, and a two-year rental agreement that allows customers to standardise on the latest wireless technology. They wind up with a complete hardware refresh every two years and don't have the headache of running multiple wireless standards."

Order out of chaos

Network consultant for IBM's Global Technology Services division, Andrew Ho, said running multiple wireless standards simultaneously might be best practice.

"A dual spectrum strategy, 802.11a for voice and 802.11g for data, is the current best practice," he said. "Not only does this give separation of function and better spectrum use, it gives the voice traffic, which is delay sensitive in nature, its own wavelength. This kind of configuration allows for voice traffic to bypass the contentious nature of the wireless medium and not fight through the data for bandwidth and priority."

This being the case, network consultants and systems integrators may be better off creating best-of-breed solutions for companies regardless of the increased complexity this introduces into the wireless environment. "From our point of view, these environments don't seem complex," Matrix's Saupin said. "But from the customer's point of view we need absolutely to simplify the support, and that often comes down to getting the implementation right in the first place."

ThinkSecure network security consultant, Scott Crane, agreed.

"The need to keep a lot of people online and connecting to specific types of applications creates a very complex environment, but the role of the integrator is to simplify the user interface so that it is easy to use and secure," he said. "The approach we try to follow is to focus on usability, and apply security in such a way that it is transparent to the end user and easy for them to apply."

According to Crane, hiding the complexity from the end-user involved controlling how and why people required a wireless connection to the company network, and simplifying the authentication methods so users don't attempt to create shortcuts.

"We might be heading towards a kind of wireless harmony where all these different standards converge but, in the meantime, we need to look for ways to manage the diversity," he said. "It's about more than just rolling out technology as the company asks for it, it's about striving for balance between what they are trying to achieve business wise, and adding value in terms of the underlying wireless infrastructure."

There were simply not enough wireless smarts to go around, managing director for systems integrator Telarus, Jules Rumsey, said.

"We launched a wireless design and security service recently, and found systems integrators and resellers coming to us on behalf of their customers," he said. "Often integrators base their business around a specific set of technologies or applications and they don't have the specific skills needed to manage different wireless standards and connections."

As it turns out the legacy of haphazard applications driven adoption has increased, and as a result unnecessary complexity is hardwired into a company's wireless LANs, leaving them both inefficient and unreliable.

"A lot of work needs to go into the design of wireless LANs in the first place, and if you're going to do it properly you need a system which will provide progressive support for wireless rollouts as companies change and develop," Rumsey said. "Resellers need the capacity to conduct wireless connectivity audits, and ensure the infrastructure they are providing will offer the best possible result."

And while this kind of strategy approach may improve the operations of the wireless technology within a company, an entirely different approach may be required in the outside world.

Coping with the carriers

Although Forrester's Sheedy argued there was no great demand for resellers to amalgamate carrier contracts, industry rumours suggested carriers might well work towards a single billing mechanism for mobile voice and data connectivity. Industry pundits are tipping major carriers will begin offering account management facilities, consolidating and itemising a single monthly bill covering multiple networks and connections. However, the nirvana of wireless connectivity lies in the change over point between mobile connectivity outside the corporate network, and wireless VoIP within the corporate environment.

The IEEE is in the process of ratifying the 802.11n standard, which will operate at double the speed of current 802.11a and g connections. Although many in the channel are tipping it as a key driver for wireless VoIP, IBM's Ho warned against postponing deployments for an as yet untried technology.

"Strategy-wise, waiting for 'the next big thing' [802.11n] doesn't make good business sense," he said. "Technology is slow to be standardised and ratified by governing bodies, and until that happens we have no guarantee of its effect in different environments." At the same time as internal connectivity is awaiting 802.11n, carriers and telecommunications vendors are working on GSM-to-wireless LAN switching.

"The big mobile vendors - the Nokias, Arubas and Avayas of this world - are all working towards the seamless swapping of calls between internal and external wireless networks," Tele-IP's Risos said. "It will need a convergence of mobile and wireless LAN technology to create a true mobile handset, which switches automatically from the external GSM network, to VoIP on the internal wireless LAN when you enter the building." And while this would make life even easier for end users, it's likely to rely on a series of complex relationship between mobile network providers and VoIP vendors. "At this point in time you can already make a call over Wi-Fi, and switch to the GSM network with the same handset," Rumsey said. "The seamless switchover capability might even be available by the end of 2007."

However, rather than simplify the wireless Web, this is likely to add another two vendors to the already long list of corporate suppliers, and another standard to the wireless LAN infrastructure. Still, more complexity means more work for the channel, and more opportunities for resellers who can hide the complexity and make the wireless Web look and feel simple and seamless.