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.