Wireless Gathers Steam; Vendors Adding Security

SAN MATEO (03/20/2000) - A sleeping wireless giant, the 802.11b standard for wireless LAN access to corporate data, may awaken by the end of the year, with increased speed and lower costs driving the adoption of wireless functionality in the enterprise.

Cisco this week plans to roll out a next generation of wireless LAN products from its acquisition of Aironet Wireless Communications. And Intel has jumped into the wireless fray as it races to bring to market a low-cost 802.11b chip solution.

Notebook manufacturers, including IBM Corp., Dell Computer Corp., and Compaq Computer Corp., are on track to outfit notebooks with 802.11b technology as the use of wireless LANs in the enterprise takes off.

The IEEE's 802.11b standard is for wireless communications running in the 2.4GHz spectrum, which allows transmission speeds as fast as 11Mbps.

The business benefits for the use of high-speed wireless LANs are tempting enterprise users. While maintaining network access, workers can forgo plugs and desktops for the ability to roam within corporate campuses.

"In our case, I can see the benefit of [wireless LANs]," said Eric Kuzmack, lead analyst at publishing giant Gannett, in Silver Spring, Md., and member of the InfoWorld Corporate Advisory Board.

"With offices where you have a lot of nomadic workers, wireless could be extremely beneficial. Workers could gain access to the network without having to plug in, and you could take meetings in conference rooms regardless of whether there is a network jack in the wall or not," Kuzmack said.

"There are security concerns, however, that someone could stand outside the building and be able to get on the network," Kuzmack said.

As security fears grip enterprise users, Cisco's Aironet 340 series 11Mbps wireless LAN product suite will debut this week featuring 128-bit encryption for PC cards, according to a source familiar with Cisco plans.

In addition to enhanced security, sources say the products will feature improved management functions -- another key issue for enterprises -- that will allow control of the wireless LAN from network management products such as Hewlett-Packard's HP OpenView.

Notebook manufacturers have jumped on the wireless bandwagon as well.

IBM officials said that by midyear the company will unfurl a wireless initiative that will include 802.11b PC cards and access points. In the services arena, IBM officials said they intend to form partnerships with companies that offer wireless LAN capabilities in airports and hotels.

IBM, along with others, confirmed it is looking to incorporate wireless technology -- including 802.11b and Bluetooth, another wireless standard -- into its notebook systems.

Compaq already offers 802.11b-compliant wireless LANs on its Armada line of notebook computers, and although the current wireless offerings require outboard devices such as the WL100 wireless LAN PC card, sources within the company have confirmed plans to bring wireless to the board level in the very near future.

According to one Dell representative who requested anonymity, several customers are already testing prototype Dell Latitude notebooks equipped with 802.11b and Bluetooth technology.

"Wireless integration is a key focus of our Latitude line," the representative said. "Dell provides select corporate customers a nine-to 12-month view of the road ahead in terms of technological change."

Intel's investment of $100 million in Symbol Technologies brought the company 802.11b expertise.

According to sources familiar with the effort, Intel has put 300 engineers on a project intended to reduce the chip set for wireless PC cards down to two by the end of this year.

Currently, 802.11b PC cards use between five and seven chips. A solution for fewer chips is expected to drive the price down for components, eventually benefiting end-users.

"Over the next few years as the price comes down, 802.11b will become a lot more attractive for users," said Jack Gold, senior program director, Web and Collaboration Strategies, at the Meta Group, in Westborough, Mass.

According to another analyst, this year networking companies are pushing wireless LAN technology into the enterprise and public spaces.

"Because of different factors coming together -- not the least of which is the 802.11b standard -- there will be a lot of momentum behind this," said Mike Wolf, senior analyst at Cahners In-Stat Group, in Scottsdale, Ariz.

"Costs are coming down, so it is not such an exotic technology, and wireless speeds are to the point that people are starting to think that [this technology] is ready for prime time," Wolf said.

Tapping into wireless

Products backing 802.11b include:

* Cisco Aironet 340 wireless LANs

* Compaq Armada notebooks

* Dell Latitude notebooks

* IBM Thinkpad notebooks

* Lucent Orinoco wireless LANs

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