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Networking's greatest debates in Wireless

Including BlackBerry vs. Palm, Municipal Wi-Fi vs. 3G, CDMA vs. GSM and Wireless LANs vs. wired LANs

Corporate control of mobile devices vs. individual employee ownership

A recent survey on mobile workforce security confirmed what we've known for a long time. Giving your mobile employees notebooks and smartphones is like giving your teenaged kids the keys to the car: once they're out the door, there's nothing you can do about what they do.

A majority of the 450 IT managers surveyed by management software vendor BigFix say they believe the mobile workforce makes their enterprise networks more susceptible to malware and other threats. And in some cases, these IT managers think their existing systems management tools have contributed to mobile devices falling victim to a worm or virus.

Even more personal than the personal computer, handheld computers and smartphones (and even iPods) are also even more dependent on both the corporate network and intervening provider networks. So far, enterprise networks are ill-prepared to secure and manage the devices themselves, the data on them, or their access to corporate networks.

The issues in the argument are complex: end-user behaviors and habits, securing data on the devices, protecting the devices from malware infections, protecting the data on them if they're lost or stolen, monitoring data copying or file transfers to USB devices, streamlining access to the corporate network, integrating them with Network Access Control (NAC) products. Right now, companies have to stitch together an array of third-party software products and appliances to address this complexity.

This is one argument where the solution seems to be to find the common ground that makes a comprehensive solution possible.
John Cox

Research in Motion (BlackBerry) vs. Palm

Palm was the first to make a handheld computer practical, rather than a short-lived oddity. But Research in Motion, with its BlackBerry e-mail handheld, was the first to make it a necessity, as evidenced by the nickname given the device by its devoted users: "Crackberry."

RIM bored into the upper echelons of the white-collar professional market with an information service - wireless push e-mail - that these users found indispensable. Now, the Canadian company is working with a variety of form factors, including data-enabled smartphones, to push this success deeper and broader in the enterprise market and into the consumer market, where Palm has most of its success.

For the past year, after finally settling with patent nemesis NTP, RIM has been a revenue and profit machine, most recently for the second quarter of 2008 (ending September 1): quarterly revenues were US$1.37 billion, up 27% from the prior quarter (and more than double from a year ago), while net income was US$288 million compared with US$223 million for the prior period and US$140 million a year ago.

A massive BlackBerry service outage earlier in 2007 apparently has had no effect on subscriber growth, revenue, profits or its reputation. But in the consumer market, RIM faces much larger rivals such as Motorola and Nokia, both of whom have acquired wireless push e-mail capabilities themselves.

By contrast, Palm's quarterly results at the end of June were US$401 million in revenue, and US$15.4 million net income. Its cutting edge image for device design took a blow with the ill-fated Foleo device, announced earlier in 2007 and confusedly explained as a "mobile companion" to a user's smartphone. It was scrapped before seeing daylight a few months later. Palm is now focused on recrafting its PalmOS around a Linux kernel, betting on the market projections that show Linux-based handhelds taking off worldwide.
John Cox

Municipal Wi-Fi vs. 3G

Municipal Wi-Fi -- understood as an outdoor Wi-Fi blanket of wireless mesh nodes -- was touted, with new millennium fervor, as the means to bridge the digital divide, spur economic development miracles, and sidestep the telco/cable oligarchy that was choking money out of consumers for Internet access. And doing it all on the cheap with 802.11 wireless gear.

But in 2007, municipal Wi-Fi projects began to stumble. Some dissolved in political battles, as in San Francisco. Others failed when network providers began to balk at terms and conditions demanded by municipal authorities. Still others (at least so far) have simply not realized their promise, with subscribers and subscriber growth far below projections.

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Meanwhile the service provider oligarchy has been pouring tens of millions of dollars into extending and improving 3G data services: Revision A Evolution-Data Optimized (EV-DO) technology for GSM nets, and Universal Mobile Telecommunications System/High Speed Downlink Packet Access (UMTS/HSDPA) for CDMA networks.

Both groups of carriers are actively working on still faster technologies for "4G" services in the future, which will far surpass Wi-Fi mesh networks (at least until wireless LAN gear based on the 802.11n standard becomes widely deployed).

And there's a booming market in femtocells: in essence, these are small signal boosters that create an optimal, reliable and pervasive cell signal within homes and office buildings.

What may emerge instead of an either-or choice is ultimately a both-and choice, where network providers and municipalities manage to find models that let them exploit the strengths of both 802.11 and cellular wireless networks.
John Cox

Fat wireless LAN access points vs. thin wireless LAN access points

This is one argument that was decisively ended. And then started up again.

Historically, wireless LANs (WLAN) relied on "fat" access points, which handled a wide array of tasks in software, each a separate IP address wired directly into Ethernet switches. All that changed around 2001 with the introduction of the WLAN switch (usually now called a controller) from start-ups such as Airespace, Aruba Wireless Networks and Trapeze Networks.

Most of the access point's functions were shifted to the controller, which incorporated the Ethernet switch. The argument: centralize management, security administration, client handoffs and more. That argument seemed over when Cisco paid almost half a billion dollars to acquire Airespace.

But during the past 12 months, WLAN vendors such as Trapeze have been offloading jobs like data forwarding from the controller back to the access points. The new argument: less load on the controller, no single point of network failure, and reduced network latency and jitter.

In May 2007 a brand new start-up, Aerohive bet the farm on a more radical version of this idea. Areohive distributes all of the controller functions through a mesh of intelligent access points, each with its own IP address. They work cooperatively to do the task formerly done by a separate controller. Aerohive won't dethrone Cisco in the WLAN space anytime soon, but it suggests renewed efforts to distribute specifically wireless intelligence more pervasively through the network.
John Cox

CDMA vs. GSM

The real problem with the cellular industry is all the blasted acronyms. Basically, you've got different ways of making a cellular voice or data call, with vendors lined up behind both. AT&T, and its Cingular acquisition, and T-Mobile are the major GSM carriers in the United States; with Sprint (which merged with Nextel), Verizon and Virgin Mobile as the chief CDMA carriers. Into the new millennium, their chief competitive tactic has been cutting prices.

But that's changing. Both groups are speeding up their deployment of much faster 3G versions of their cellular radios. For CDMA, that's various "revisions" of EV-DO (Evolution-Data Optimized), currently Revision A; for GSM, it's UMTS (Universal Mobile Telephone Standard) coupled with HSDPA (High Speed Downlink Packet Access).

The peak speeds claimed by the carriers show considerable overlap. The point is they're way faster, and people want faster.

"From the evidence we've seen and the research we've done, there is absolutely a pent-up demand for 3G from enterprises," says Mike O'Malley, director of external marketing for Tellabs, speaking to Network World earlier this year. The company sells mobile wireless equipment to carriers.

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"That's because it offers Wi-Fi speeds or better, but unlimited roaming. People don't want to walk from Starbucks to Starbucks for connectivity."

But the higher speeds also make possible brand new digital data services, both information and entertainment, based on a wide range of media types including pictures, music, TV and streaming video. These media and the spread of wireless push e-mail is giving cell phone users a taste for what this new "always-on" data network can do.

This is one argument that's far from over.
John Cox

Wireless LANs vs. wired LANs

For years, this was one of those non-arguments. Who in their right mind would exchange a dedicated Gigabit or even 100Mbps wired Ethernet connection for a shared 54Mbps wireless one?

College students, it turns out. On campus after campus, even with high-speed wired connections in their dorm rooms, most students who have WLAN access use it as their main connection to campus applications, libraries and labs, and the Internet. Increasingly, that's happening in business as well: people with wireless clients expect to connect...anywhere.

This argument is heating up, for two reasons. First, new software and silicon now let vendors build wireless LAN functions directly into Ethernet switches. The infrastructure will handle both wired and wireless access with integrated security and management. Second, and more dramatically, vendors such as Meru and Cisco are now releasing next generation Wi-Fi gear based on the draft 802.11n standard. Users can expect to see shared throughput of 150M to 200Mbps to start and well over 300Mbps in premium equipment soon.

"If you look at 11n with 150Mbps and 20 users sharing the access point, they get 7Mbps average throughput," says Paul DeBeasi, senior analyst with Burton Group. "They don't get that in their homes with DSL and cable modems. It's time for people to reset their thinking." DeBeasi tried to do just that by authoring a recent, provocatively titled study "The end of Ethernet?"

Will 802.11n, the next generation high-throughput Wi-Fi, make the RJ-45 connector in the office wall as obsolete as gaslights? That question will start to be answered during the next 12 months as companies make decisions on new or upgraded corporate WLANs.
John Cox

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