BOSTON (05/08/2000) - The enterprise network is rooted in place, cables tethering PCs and servers alike. The problem is that many enterprise workers are not.
Today, a much faster wireless Ethernet standard, combined with ever-more powerful handheld computers and company intranets, make it possible to extend the corporate network, applications and data to more workers than ever before - no matter where they are.
It's this opportunity, rather than executive convenience or lower infrastructure costs, that is driving a dramatic surge in wireless LAN (WLAN) spending. Cahners In-Stat Group, a research firm in Scottsdale, Arizona, predicts the number of WLAN users will jump from 2.3 million in 1999 to 23 million in 2003. Corporate spending this year on WLANs will jump 16 percent to $898 million, up from $771 million in 1999. In 2003, Cahners says the total will be $1.4 billion.
WLANs use radio frequencies, allocated by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, to send and receive data. Traditionally, wireless has been a niche technology, used by warehouses or car rental agencies. Handheld devices were specialized, sometimes custom-built. The wireless links were relatively slow, 1 or 2M-bps, although more than enough for many applications, even today.
Everything was expensive, and companies such as Proxim, Symbol Technologies and Texlon were the dominant players.
All of that has been changing dramatically since September 1999, when the 11M bit/sec IEEE 802.11b standard was ratified, boosting wireless Ethernet LAN speeds from the previous standard of 2M bit/sec to 11M bit/sec. As a result, big network players have been piling into the market. For example, Cisco acquired Texlon's Aironet group in April, and 3Com has been expanding its wireless product line. Lucent is shipping 11M bit/sec products, and Nokia will start shipping them in the next few weeks.
Enterprise customers are also embracing the standard. "Wireless LANs wouldn't have taken off without the 802.11 standards," says Richard Paine, IS executive at The Boeing Company in Seattle. The airplane builder is creating an integrated wireless architecture that will span 802.11b WLANs and wide-area wireless services.
"Before the 802.11 standard was ratified, wireless vendors did their own proprietary thing," says Michael McPeck, director of respiratory care at University Medical Center, State University of New York at Stony Brook. "The standard gives you interoperability."
At least it does in theory. Vendors are hammering out the practical bits in the recently formed Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance (WECA). WECA tests and certifies that different 802.11b products work together (www.wi-fi.org). In April, products from 3Com, Cabletron's Enterasys Networks, Cisco's Aironet, Compaq, Lucent and others passed the first round of certification tests.
At the same time, prices have plunged for WLAN products. "It used to be $200 or more for an interface card and $800 to $1,000 for an access point," says Katrina Dalquist, senior analyst with market research firm IDC in Framingham, Massachusetts. "Prices have been dropping dramatically during the past six months. Wireless LANs are much more feasible now."
"We've seen fast commoditization of the market," says Dan MacDonald, vice president of marketing for Nokia Internet Communications in Mountain View, California. "You can buy PC cards for $99 to $179 and access points for as low as $400."
Enterprise users know a good deal when they see one. Companies outside the traditional wireless markets are turning to wireless nets with the fervor of religious converts.
"They're doing it because there's a need for timely, integrated information all through the corporate supply chain, from the customer through to the manufacturer," says Michael Finch, director of mobile computing solutions for FinTech Services, a Calgary enterprise resource planning (ERP) integrator.
FinTech is helping some companies set up vendor-managed inventory systems, in which a company's suppliers are responsible for tracking and replenishing their own products at a customer site. WLANs connect the handheld data collection devices for tracking inventory, recording deliveries, and creating invoices for corporate and supplier ERP systems, such as SAP R/3. WLANs' benefits create a needed inventory at hand, less duplication, fewer "stock outs," more accurate data and faster billing cycles.
But wireless Ethernet is different from the wired LANs most IT groups are familiar with. Those differences can create a range of problems.
Deployment of WLANs can be deceptively simple. Rick Burris, president of eSense, a Palm Desert, Calif., purchasing software consultancy, put together a corporate Web-based purchasing system for a big southern bank. To deliver the goods, literally, eSense deployed a WLAN at the bank's huge new warehouse.
Installation was smooth and fast, Burris says.
But there are a host of variables that can complicate things, warns John Hughes, director of product management for Symbol in Holtsville, New York.
WLANs are restricted by law to a certain set of channels, which have to be shared. "You don't have unlimited capacity with wireless," Hughes says. "If you add more users and more devices, things start to slow down."
The range of wireless radios also varies. "It's always fuzzy," Hughes says. "It depends on how many walls you have to go through, or the number of people walking through the office, or what your furniture is made of."
Interference can be an issue in some cases, but not in others. Hughes says there is a proliferation of products, from toys to baby monitors to industrial machinery, that use either the 900 MHz or 2.4 GHz bands. But McPeck, at University Medical Center, shows visitors radio-powered heart monitors sitting next to the WLAN access point, peacefully coexisting.
"WLAN deployment isn't complicated provided you have done a proper job of the network design and testing," FinTech's Finch says. "And for that, you need someone who is trained and skilled in radio communications. Customers shouldn't try to do this themselves."
Despite the potential difficulties, WLANs create, literally, boundless opportunities to collect and deposit data at precisely the right point, at precisely the right time.