Do you long for the days of yore, when all computers came with a wired Ethernet port and Starbucks was once a coffee shop and not a connectivity destination? Sometimes I do, because life seemed much simpler then. We didn't have to worry about balancing the radio output on wireless access points, nor worry that a war driver was sitting in the parking lot sucking down bandwidth and trying to penetrate our perimeter. Heck, even the notion of a network perimeter was fairly solid back then.
Certainly, a wireless network makes it easier for a typical small business to deploy connectivity across its office. There are no more worries about wiring up an ancient office building, drilling into who-knows-what in the walls, and trying to place network receptacles in the right places. Just power up that wireless router and get online! Who needs wires anymore? Does anyone even buy a traditional desktop PC? Or have a traditional desk, come to think of it? We have become much more mobile. We move around our workspaces during the day, taking our computers with us to meetings and to lunch.
And that convenience is catching. Look what has happened with wireless recently. In healthcare, Wi-Fi was once considered taboo and a threat to all the medical electronics of a typical hospital. In the past year alone Wi-Fi has grown more than 60%, according to ABI Research. Jiwire, which tracks public Wi-Fi hotspots, shows nearly 700,000 locations world-wide, and on mobile devices alone it has seen Wi-Fi usage doubling (and laptops corresponding decreasing) over the past year alone.
China Mobile, the world's largest (by subscribers) plans this year to deploy a million hotspots across its vast network. A million! Not to be left out of this trend, Japan's KDDI mobile carrier is growing ten times its hot spots in the next six months, to have a total of 100,000 of them spread across the country.
It is a bit scary. This connectivity comes at a price: It’s more work to manage who is on your network. You need to secure your wireless access; otherwise your neighbors might attach their own computers to your network. Your bandwidth might not be as consistent as other radio emitters interfere with your Wi-fi signal. If your office is spread out across a large space or several floors, you have to coordinate your access points and do radio site surveys to determine their best placement. (Otherwise people whine about a lack of connectivity in the conference rooms.) Wireless latency could be an issue for those users that are further away or who have older model laptops with less capable radios.
Remember the all-wired world? When you didn't have to worry about these details? There are still some firms who are keeping their cords, such as one top Manhattan law firm. "We still only provide Wi-fi access for guests or smartphones," said the IT manager, who insists on using an all-wired deployment of the firm's desktops. "We don't issue laptops for our attorneys, so there is no need for any wireless access. They can use their iPads thru our Citrix gateway if they want to run our software on their own devices." But most of the employees put up with running a managed desktop and using the corporate-approved apps.
This seems so retro now. Most businesses have some mix of wired and wireless, with the wireless growing faster and being the connectivity of choice, as Pam Baker wrote about.
Take a look at the world of academia, where "students show up expecting everything to be wireless these days," according to the outgoing CIO at Swarthmore College, Gayle Barton. The college offers wireless everywhere across its tony suburban Philadelphia campus, and while users have to register, that didn't stop several hundred visiting alumni at parents' weekend or commencement to sign on to their wireless network. "Our visitors assume that they will get the same kind of Internet service that they get at Starbucks, and so we try to make it fairly painless," she said.
A typical day sees more than 3,400 unique wireless devices that comprise everything from game consoles, smartphones, iPads, and traditional Mac and Windows PCs. This compares to only 2,500 wired devices on their network. And the college does keep track of everything, despite the academic freedoms and ubiquitous access. As a result, the college has recovered a couple of laptops that were stolen but had reconnected elsewhere on the campus network. (Note to potential thieves of the future: Find an off-campus pawnshop.) Swarthmore also have had to increase its bandwidth by about 100 MB each year to handle increased Internet usage.
"Our students are pushing for change and it wouldn't have happened without wireless access," Barton says. As an example, she mentions an art studio class where the professor installed a digital projector so students could share links to paintings as they were creating their own works. "We are moving to any time, any place, and any device now."
All this pervasive computing is changing the way IT services is delivered. Ten years ago, Swarthmore and others could have gotten away with turning off their network servers on a Saturday to do scheduled maintenance and upgrades. "That would be hard to do now," says Barton. "The entertainment aspect of the Internet is very important today." There isn't any downtime. That certainly doesn’t help the sysadmins who need to keep up with the demand.
A mixed wired/wireless network means more points of failure. It means lots more work to troubleshoot problems. You need solid tools to detect interference and other radio oddities. You need to understand the different frequencies used by the constellation of 802.11 a/b/g/n devices and how they interact with each other, because chances are you have a mixture of older and newer wireless radios across your network. You need to understand that each Windows version has different capabilities when it comes to using the various encrypted wireless protocols. For example, you need your Windows XP systems running at Service Pack 3 for the most secure connection. In fact, you should understand that WEP offers almost no security, as Tom Henderson wrote.
Don't get me wrong: I love my wireless just as much as the next guy. When I travel, I assume that I will have Wi-Fi in my hotel room, at the airport, and at any of a number of retail places where I can park myself for a few hours and get my Internet fix. And I also assume that I can get that Wi-Fi access for free, or for a reasonable fee.
But that is as a user. As a sometime IT manager, it can be liberating to not have to worry about running wires hither and yon. But those days when we had more wired Ethernet around? It made for some simpler times. And I miss them.