3Com AirConnect Frees Users, Lowers Costs

SAN MATEO (04/03/2000) - Let's face it: Laying new cable for a growing LAN is a hassle. However, a wireless LAN, which is an extension of a traditional wired network, may be a good alternative.

Although the wireless LAN technology has been around for a while, it's just now gaining acceptance and being used by corporations. A wireless LAN gives mobile workers the freedom to roam around a building while maintaining access to the Internet and other work-related applications. It's also a feasible alternative to Ethernet and Token Ring networks, and it can make the expense and sometimes time-consuming task of installing wire all but disappear.

Moving a network can be troublesome, and for growing companies moving to another building or expanding within the same building, it is a major concern.

The 3Com Corp. AirConnect 11Mbps Wireless LAN can be ideal in such situations; instead of having to rewire an entire network, all you have to do is pick up the few parts of a wireless LAN and move them to the new office. And if your workspace grows, you can expand the network simply by adding another central access point.

If you want speedy performance, support for as many as 63 users, and long-term cost savings, you may want to consider AirConnect. I gave this product a score of Good for living up to the 3Com's claims, despite a few problems.

With this release, 3Com joins other vendors in the wireless in-building solution arena: Lucent with WaveLAN; and BreezeCOM with BreezeNET. The three solutions provide similar components, but Lucent's unique architecture features two PCMCIA slots that allow users to create indoor and outdoor wireless links.

BreezeCOM supports the most network operating systems, including those from Sun, Hewlett-Packard, DEC, and IBM.

No wires required

The 3Com AirConnect Starter Pack, which is the edition I tested, consists of a wireless local bridge called an access point, three notebook PC Cards, and a PowerBASE-T connector. The software portion of the package includes the AirConnect Connection Monitor network management software, administrative utilities, and a site survey utility.

The access point acts as a bridge between the Ethernet backbone of a wired network and has a range radius of about 300 feet, using encryption to secure the connection.

The laptop hardware used to make the connection is AirConnect's 5-volt, 16-bit, Type II PC card. The management software provides a variety of methods for connecting to the access point, such as a serial connection, Telnet, SNMP, or Web browser. In addition, 3Com's Transcend Network Control Services 1.1 for Windows NT enables management abilities.

AirConnect is also available for desktop clients, with NICs (network information cards) available from 3Com in mid-April, at $329 each.

Although installing the AirConnect and configuring my remote clients was easy, it required a little planning. I had to thoroughly assess my environment for obstacles that would alter my signal, such as elevators shafts and stairways.

After surveying my site and evaluating my environment, I was able to determine the best location for my access point.

Roaming the hallways

The AirConnect supports the 802.11b standard, which provides an 11Mbps signaling rate and a 300-foot range around its access point, providing users with the flexibility to roam within the building.

The AirConnect performed admirably when I was close to the access point, but throughput varied between 2Mbps and 10Mbps. I roamed throughout my office building with my laptop in tow, with an average throughput of about 7Mbps -- a relatively good signal rate. When I walked out of range, my connection was suspended, but resumed immediately as I got back into range, posing very few problems.

The connection rate also varied depending on my file-transfer sizes and the number of users concurrently accessing the wireless LAN. As with all wireless LANs, the more users connected to an access point, the lower the data rate.

The AirConnect access point supports up to 63 users. Additional access points can be added to an area to provide support for more users by placing the various access points on different channels. Three different channels can operate in the same location, supporting up to 189 concurrent users.

The AirConnect is ideal for organizations in search of speedy LAN performance and a cost-effective, long-term investment that does not require the laying of cable. Working around the physical obstacles is a challenge, but with a little planning, organizations will have all the access they need.

Ana Orubeondo (ana_orubeondo@infoworld.com) is a technology analyst for the InfoWorld Test Center.

THE BOTTOM LINE: GOOD

AirConnect 11Mbps Wireless LAN

Business Case: This product will save money and time for companies looking to expand their infrastructures by avoiding the cost of running cable. End-users will like having the ability to access network data throughout the office.

Technology Case: AirConnect is easy to set up and use. It allows IT administrators numerous ways to monitor and manage the system.

Pros:

+ Less expensive to install than traditional wire+ Creates secure connectionsCons:

- Throughput varies

- For Windows environments only

- Physical obstacles affect transmissionCost: Starter Pack: $1,795 (includes one access point and three PC cards); NIC card (available in mid-April): $329Platform(s): Windows 9x/2000, NT3Com Corp., Santa Clara, California; (800) NET-3COM; www.3com.com.

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