Opinion: Catch the wireless wave

January, our month of resolutions, is almost over. The saturated fats and simple carbs are creeping back into our diets, while the frequency of trips to the gym is trending downward. A half-day search for my notes for this column suggests to me that my resolve to get organized is falling a bit short of the mark. As a metaphor for the economic climate, this season of disappointment is a little too close for comfort. In it, only the tough and the focused keep their heads up high enough to see over the wall of the bunker most of us have hunkered down into.

And what those resilient optimists in corporate IT are looking for is opportunity -- choices they can make even in hard times to improve the way their companies do business.

The dangers of the marketplace and the need to use resources wisely are clear. But being timid is not necessarily prudent. The bells, whistles and gee-whiz technologies have been put in mothballs in most corporate IT departments, but that decision can come at a price. Some very slick technologies that seemed like extras a short time ago will soon be essential to the way companies work.

One of those is wireless networking. Many of us have been carping about the slow adoption of wireless for so long that we've failed to recognize the wireless wave breaking over corporate IT. Mark Hall, of Computerworld US, predicted in a December column that by 2012, every new digital device in the enterprise will be wirelessly connected. Absolutely right, but awfully conservative.

"Wireless is a reality in the enterprise, in Europe at least -- and it's coming to be so in the States," Amir Lehr told me last week. Lehr is vice president of PowerDsine Ltd., an Israeli company that he says is riding the wave of wireless adoption with its Power Over Ethernet technology.

If your existing infrastructure is, well, not quite up to date and you've been listening to the unfulfilled predictions about wireless for several years, you might think that it'll be a while before your company considers the move. Maybe so, but your competitors might not wait for you.

There are two main forces at work moving corporate IT toward wireless. The first is the pull of the technology itself. The 802.11b standard is chugging toward maturity, while its siblings -- a, g and the coming high-performance 802.15.3, to name a few -- represent the first of many more protocols that will eventually provide the glue to bind wireless networks together.

The other force is the push from end users who have gotten used to checking their AOL and Hotmail accounts from the corner coffee shop. Wireless is no longer a novelty to them; it's a promise of freedom, connectivity and uninterrupted productivity. And don't forget that the next generation of IT professionals will have spent their college careers thinking that access to a wireless LAN is as normal as access to the library.

OK, there's still a way to go. Clearly, if the uses of the technology are going to get more sophisticated than connecting tradesmen to inventory, scheduling and dispatching systems, more progress must be made on the interoperability front. But as painful and halting as that progress may be, the struggle is familiar -- we saw it with other significant technologies as they matured and gained acceptance. And the payoff for both users and vendors is sufficient to ensure that standards will prevail.

Questions about security, worrisome in relation to any technology used in a corporation, are somehow harder to put to rest about wireless.

Wireless security is very much like security in the wired world -- the right technology is important, but policy and practice are more so. The keys are rigorous authentication of users and devices by the host system, and improved encryption to protect data while it's in transit. The 802.11 Wired Equivalent Privacy standard has proved to be woefully inadequate, but the coming 802.11i protocol will include the government-approved Advanced Encryption Standard. Security will always be a race, but the good guys will soon have the tools to keep ahead of the hackers and crackers.

So as the year progresses, take a peek over the bunker wall and think about the future of your company's IT infrastructure. The wireless wave is coming -- now's the time to catch it.

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