The wireless dilemma

New technologies don’t usually flood a market all at once. More often, they gain a few niche uses and then — if successful — spread from there.

In information technology, this spread typically takes one of two forms. In the top-down model, a high-end technology gets co-opted, simplified for use by the masses, and winds up as practically a consumer item. Switches and routers are good examples. Once found only in sophisticated networks, today they’re sold like toasters at retail computer stores.

The opposite extreme is the bottom-up model, in which some technology becomes so popular among consumers that IT departments are forced to support it. Personal computers forged this path in the 1980s. PDAs followed, to a more limited extent, during the last decade. Surprisingly, given their obvious potential, wireless LANs seem to be following the bottom-up route.

The basic technologies have been around for a while, though it was not until the 802.11b standard was finalised in 1999 that commercial applications really took off.

Before and since then, there has been no shortage of enterprise-level wireless products. But the real market driver — until recently — was at the low end, where inexpensive WLANs-in-a-box become the default solution for new small networks.

So why, aside from sheer inertia, has IT been slow to go wireless? The answer is that there are formidable technical obstacles to implementing, managing, and securing an enterprise-scale WLAN.

For starters, there is the issue of whether to base the network on a wireless gateway or on WLAN switches. Gateways make it easier to manage user authentication and security and are more likely to work with any existing wireless access points that may be installed. WLAN switches offer superior management, but come in several different basic configurations (layer 2 vs layer 3, for example) and often require you to lock into elements of proprietary technology.

There is now a flurry of commercial activity, which is very good for buyers. While it poses a baffling array of choices today, in the not-so-long run it will enable more companies to enjoy the significant savings in cost and convenience that WLANs can bring.

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