With 802.11n offering performance and security on par with cabled Ethernet, why wouldn’t you embrace wireless? This, anyway, is the vision of WLAN equipment vendors. The most telling slogan is Motorola’s: “Wireless by default, wired by exception.” The truth, though, is this all-wireless vision takes some parsing.
All-wireless is coming—if you’re talking about the end-user perspective. No one is proposing wireless data centers. Ethernet to the desktop isn’t dead yet, especially since there’s no reason to tear out wiring already in place. Yet, as far as new equipment goes, it’s slowly being phased out.
“There’s no reason that client devices shouldn’t be wireless,” said Craig Mathias, a principal at Farpoint Group, a wireless advisory firm. “You can argue that even a good part of LAN infrastructure will be wireless eventually, especially with mesh architectures, but one thing that Wi-Fi still doesn’t achieve is Gigabit-speed throughput.”
Which means wires are here to stay, albeit in a pared back roll. If you need those thick pipes for specialized applications, such as video editing or CAD, you’ll still be running cable for a long time to come. Even things like continuous backup and disaster recovery would overwhelm Wi-Fi, but those IT-specific tasks should have little bearing on the typical end user.
Is 802.11n Even a Standard Yet?
Technically, no. 802.11n is still not ratified by the IEEE, although draft four was passed in May and most of the work left to do is fairly obscure, such as dynamic frequency selection. If you’re confused, you’re not alone, especially since 802.11n products have been shipping for some time now. Officially, those are pre-standard products, but they’ve been approved by the Wi-Fi Alliance, which stepped in to speed up the process.
Wi-Fi Alliance approval means these products have reached a de facto standards threshold. They must interoperate, and they’ll be easily upgraded as the official IEEE standard evolves.
Despite a history of 802.11 standards in-fighting, most CIOs shouldn’t worry too much about the nitty gritty details of 802.11n. “The real question, especially in tough economic times is, ‘Why do it?’” said Chris Roeckl, VP of Marketing for AirMagnet, a provider of WLAN assurance tools. “The answer will surprise most people. If you’re talking about investing in new equipment, wireless is much more cost effective than wiring a new desktop.”
Security and Throughput
Let’s face it 802.11 has a checkered past within the enterprise. First, there was WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy). Then there were the various 802.11 flavors that never quite interoperated as well as they were supposed to. Then there were backwards compatibility issues, with .11b clients killing .11g throughput. Then there were the competing infrastructure philosophies on how to control and manage WLANs; with people spending vast amounts of time and energy debating the merits of switches vs. gateways vs. whatever other architecture vendors dreamed up.
No wonder plenty of CIOs (and even whole industries) are wary of wireless. “Today, when we get called into financial organizations, it’s to make sure there is no wireless,” Roeckl said. However, 802.11n is light years beyond its troubled .11a/b/g predecessors. “802.11n brings two fundamental shifts. First, it’s safe enough. Second, it’s fast enough.”
Compared to wired infrastructure, Roeckl argues that 802.11n is actually more secure than a wired environment. Encryption schemes like WPA (Wi-Fi Protected Access) are extremely advanced; rogue AP detection comes standard with most enterprise WLAN management suites; and VPNs add another layer of protection. Ethernet, by contrast, doesn’t have these protections at the transport layer. (Since Ethernet is physically contained within buildings, you could argue that the transport-layer protections are things like security desks and identification badges.)