Wireless wonders

If indispensability is a measure of a technology's maturity, then wireless LANs have moved into their teen years, aided by the arrival of WLAN switches from companies such as Airespace Inc., Extreme Networks Inc. and Trapeze Networks Inc. With many mobile users now depending on wireless connectivity for anytime, anywhere network access, and demand growing daily, IT managers increasingly are turning to these new switches to get past the shortcomings of first-generation WLANs -- weak security, lack of roaming support, and high planning and support costs.

IT managers at San Antonio Community Hospital (SACH), Santa Clara University (SCU) and the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences (EECS) at University of California at Berkeley, relate how second-generation WLANs are enabling easy wireless expansion. With switch-based WLANs, they get the management tools they need to grow their WLANs without increasing IT head count.

SACH, an independent hospital in Upland, Calif., expects to save between 70 percent and 90 percent over other wireless systems in design, operations and labor costs by using the management tools available with Trapeze's Mobility System, says Jan Snyder, senior telecommunications consultant. SACH uses WLANs in the emergency room and hospital lobby for streamlined patient admittance processing, and in the emergency and operating rooms for viewing radiology images on mobile PCs.

Because WLAN switches make a wireless infrastructure easy to deploy and manage, Snyder is expanding the WLAN to more areas in the hospital with an eye toward further streamlining hospital operations and improving patient care. He's also rolling out new wireless applications, including voice. For example, doctors will get wireless phones or PDAs with soft phones and nurses will have voice-activated, "necklace-style" wireless phones so they can talk to each other in real time. Eliminating telephone tag will facilitate patient care and allow for a higher nurse-to-patient ratio.

An answer to user prayers

Like doctors and nurses, students and teachers are highly mobile users. While they can find wired ports in most locations within a university, they don't want to carry cables around with their laptops and PDAs and hunt for wall jacks, says Ron Danielson, CIO at SCU. They've had a "taste" of wireless access in SCU's law school and library, and in parts of the business school and student center, and they want more.

The university has responded with plans to enable wireless support in every campus building, including residence halls, as it replaces network edge equipment. "Information is the lifeblood of a university. We're trying to create a learning environment that's more effective and more convenient than other institutions," Danielson says.

SCU uses Extreme's Summit 300 switch to support wired and wireless connectivity. Because the same security and management tools are used for both infrastructures, Danielson doesn't have to increase his staff to support the growing wireless environment.

Through the wired network and wireless locations, students can access everything from a professor's class notes to forms at the registrar's office. SCU also has automated many administrative functions, including online registration and tuition payment using credit cards. This has improved administrative staff productivity and virtually eliminated lines of students registering for classes or paying tuition. Expanding WLANs to more campus buildings will give students and professors greater flexibility in accessing such university resources.

Hot spots everywhere

At Berkeley, WLAN access quickly went from a convenience to a necessity for the EECS school's 1,400 users, many of whom have disconnected from the wired network and use the WLAN exclusively for access to university and EECS resources and applications. For example, students can use the WLAN to download a professor's notes during a lecture.

EECS experienced growing pains with its initial WLAN system and switched to Airespace's wireless product set for its management capabilities, says Fred Archibald, network manager for EECS. Currently EECS' two buildings are equipped with WLANs, along with a lab in a third building. Faculty recently convinced Archibald to install an access point in a nearby caf‚ so they could Web browse, check e-mail and exchange files during off-site meetings.

All three IT managers expect wireless use to increase and to support additional types of devices. SACH's Snyder is evaluating wireless tablet PCs, which doctors could use to review and modify patient records or to write prescriptions. He also is considering offering Internet access to patients and providing a hot spot in the hospital lobby.

No doubt, WLAN switches have made WLAN ubiquity possible. And there's no turning back.

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