Spurred by mobile, rethinking the wireless LAN

Mobile devices and sensors are eating up WLAN bandwidth -- and forcing a rethink of Wi-Fi in business

It's the neglected stepchild of mobile: the wireless LAN. But businesses can't afford to continue that practice. It's time to rethink the wireless LAN not as a parallel network for casual use but as part of the core network, argues Andrew Borg, a mobile analyst at the Aberdeen Group. He has the numbers to back that up (the PDF report is free to InfoWorld.com readers until July 1, 2011).

Here's the issue: Most wireless LANs were deployed haphazardly, as extensions or overlays of the wired LAN. In both cases, the idea was to supplement the real network with wireless access for the occasional user, such as a visitor toting a laptop. But as mobile devices gain strong adoption in businesses, it's not unusual for there to be as many -- or more -- devices connecting to your network via Wi-Fi as are plugged into an Ethernet jack.

[ How you know your wireless LAN isn't architected for today. | Learn how to improve your network with InfoWorld's Networking Deep Dive PDF special report. ]

Why the wireless LAN has become a core, strategic network
Yet most businesses don't have the bandwidth or security to adequately handle that growing Wi-Fi usage. Much of the growth has come from smartphones and tablets: Aberdeen's surveys show that 82 percent of companies already have smartphones on their wireless LANs and 75 percent have tablets, compared to 95 percent that have laptops, and by spring 2012, 100 percent expect to have laptops in use on their wireless LANs, 99 percent to have smartphones, and 96 percent to have tablets.

But Borg says those are just the tip of the iceberg of what is running on wireless LANs these days. Companies report the following types of devices already in use on their wireless networks:

  • 43 percent have wireless printers, expected to rise to 56 percent by spring 2012
  • 38 percent have e-book readers, expected to rise to 49 percent
  • 32 percent have bar code scanners, expected to rise to 42 percent
  • 32 percent have asset tracking systems, expected to rise to 43 percent
  • 31 percent have video surveillance, expected to rise to 44 percent
  • 30 percent have video monitors, expected to rise to 47 percent
  • 29 percent have videconferencing, expected to rise to 52 percent
  • 25 percent have inventory systems, expected to rise to 38 percent
  • 20 percent have digital still cameras, expected to rise to 28 percent
  • 19 percent have entertainment systems, expected to rise to 25 percent
  • 17 percent have gaming systems, expected to rise to 21 percent
  • 12 percent have heating and air conditioning (HVAC systems), expected to rise to 19 percent
  • 9 percent have electric meters, expected to rise to 19 percent
  • 6 percent have appliances, expected to rise to 12 percent

Most of these devices are used for mission-critical activities, yet most wireless LANs aren't designed to be mission-critical, Borg says. As is often the case, those companies that have taken a strategic view of their wireless LANs -- centrally managing them as part of the core LAN, not as a separate network from the wired LAN -- are both getting better performance than the rest. They typically have twice or more the performance across a series of measures, including problem resolution time (3:1), application response time (2:1), end-to-end wireless LAN performance (3:1), and end-to-end LAN performance (2:1).

What Aberdeen calls the best-in-class companies (the top 20 percent) spent $177 per connected user for all LAN costs, versus $183 for the middle 50 percent and $188 for the bottom 30 percent (what Aberdeen calls the "laggards").

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