The future is unfolding fast in the wireless industry. Computerworld spoke with five top vendors to get their opinions on where the market is heading and what advances IT managers can expect in the coming year.
Virtual roundtable participants:
Chris Bolinger, manager of partner marketing, Cisco Systems Inc.
Jim Johnson, vice president and general manager, wireless networking, Intel Corp.
John Roese, chief technology officer, Enterasys Networks Inc., Andover, Mass.
Ray Martino, vice president and general manager of the network products group, Symbol Technologies Inc., Holtsville, N.Y.
Lynn Lucas, director of solutions marketing, WLAN division, Proxim Inc., Sunnyvale, Calif.
What does the client of the future look like?
According to most estimates, 15 percent to 20 percent of notebook computers currently ship with wireless capabilities. That's expected to jump to 70 percent in the next several years, according to Intel's Johnson. While wireless technology poses battery problems for PDAs, "more and more, Wi-Fi technology is proliferating in everything," Enterasys' Roese says.
But wireless vendors are also focusing on cellular phones. "An upcoming capability is to have a cell phone work over a wireless LAN infrastructure," Proxim's Lucas says. "Today, you can operate handsets over the 802.11b infrastructure, but if I can operate the cell phone over the WLAN infrastructure, that's a significant cost savings."
Cisco sees "combo phones" emerging next year that would use traditional cellular service when outside and the WLAN infrastructure indoors. "It won't be until 2005 that they really take off, though," Cisco's Bolinger says.
Which wireless standard will take precedence in the next year?
Vendors agree that 802.11b will prevail for the next year. Acceptance of 802.11a, they say, has been slow, mainly due to economics. Prices for 802.11b "are going through the floor," says Bolinger. Meanwhile, moving to 802.11a would require technology upgrades or replacements, and increasing the speed of current wireless applications probably isn't critical enough to justify the cost. "In the enterprise market, I'd say wait until 802.11a is more mature," says Symbol's Martino.
By the end of 2004, however, 802.11a will have its day, vendors say. "802.11a will start ramping in the second half of next year, and enterprise clients will start to do validations in the second half of the year," predicts Johnson. And 802.11g will make some gains, but not as much as 802.11a, because with the latter, you get more network capacity and channel density. "If you're trying to deploy media-rich, high-bandwidth wireless, 802.11a is clearly the right choice," says Roese.
Lucas is one dissenter. "We're seeing a leaning toward 802.11g, and that's because people are interested in the higher speeds but they want the backwards compatibility with existing 802.11b technology," she says.
What developments do you see happening in security?
Vendors agree that for most companies, security should no longer be a showstopper. By this fall, vendors will be required to support the Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) standard in order to be Wi-Fi-certified.
The Wi-Fi Alliance released WPA late last year with the intention of strengthening the weak Wired Equivalent Privacy encryption standard that was previously built into Wi-Fi products. WPA also serves as an interim step toward 802.11i -- a set of standards that's expected to answer most security needs but won't be finished until early next year. "WPA is going to be the next important milestone in ensuring that 802.11 products are secure and can interoperate with other Wi-Fi products," says Lucas.
What management improvements will be made to WLANs?
Now that security is no longer an insurmountable hurdle for enterprise WLANs, vendors contend, the next big issue is manageability. "The chief cost of WLANs are people costs, and good management will lower costs. That's why it will be a big topic for next year," Bolinger says.
A new model of wireless networking will become popular in the next year to take some of the labor out of managing WLANs, according to Roese, Martino and Lucas. It involves moving intelligence out of the access points and into a central switch, resulting in centralized, automated remote management capabilities.
In addition, says Lucas, the new architecture will help with security management, policy-based management and bandwidth management.
Exactly how this will be accomplished varies depending on what the vendors actually sell. Roese says Enterasys will ship technology this year that will help shift intelligence into the switch. Lucas says Proxim's Meistro management infrastructure will be available later this year, and Martino says Symbol also has improved management capabilities in the works.
The picture changes a bit with Cisco. "These management issues need to be addressed, but not necessarily by buying a specialized controller," Bolinger says. Cisco offers access points with management features, as well as a management platform for remotely managing hundreds of access points from a single console. The company plans to announce advanced management capabilities in the coming year, Bolinger says.
Brandel is a freelance writer in Newton, Mass. Contact her at email@example.com.