Why fight Wi-Fi?

Wireless may be enticing, but adoption is fraught with vendor lock-in and speculative standards

DESPITE LAST YEAR'S surge in wireless infrastructure adoption, the WLAN (wireless LAN) based on the 802.11b standard, aka Wi-Fi, is still far from a serious contender against the traditional LAN. Lingering concerns about WLAN security and marginal throughput gains have led many enterprises to duck adoption. Meanwhile, the ongoing commoditization of Gigabit Ethernet makes wired LANs look better all the time.

The good news, however, is that the new 802.11a specification, which made its way into the ring last year, is beginning to surface in enterprise-grade gear that boosts at least the bandwidth part of the bill. The 11a specification moves communications from the 2.4GHz range of the current 11b standard to the 5GHz range, advancing throughput performance from 11Mbps to 54Mbps in the process.

Of course, there's more to determining an enterprise deployment strategy than mere test-bed metrics. Although it's true that the 11a specification offers indisputable speed advantages, that speed comes at a price: You can expect to pay more than twice what you would for 11b components.

Even worse, because the 11a standard does not grandfather 11b, companies will be forced to either maintain multiple access points or begin retiring existing equipment. And for all but a few type-A usage scenarios, that extra bandwidth will remain mostly unused anyway.

Battening down WLAN security isn't cheap, either. Today, many security issues can be mitigated by standardizing on a single vendor's proprietary solution or implementing a VPN. But proprietary options can not only incur additional costs but also limit flexibility, compromising long-term ROI.

Of additional concern are 802.11a architectures that use centralized access controllers (the Proxim Harmony product line being one example), creating potential traffic bottlenecks throughout the network.

But the biggest concern surrounding enterprise adoption of WLANs is the flood of changes in store for 2002. Among the more notable advances will be multimode vendor chipset solutions; the 802.11g specification, which supports both 11a and 11b; the 802.11i specification, which will enable security interoperability among wireless solutions; and the integration of Bluetooth in products from major vendors.

Those shifts in the landscape are sure to help the market mature and make WLANs a more realistic option, especially for companies that want to augment their existing hard-wired LANs or reduce infrastructure costs in site build-outs. But that day is not yet upon us.

How is your company integrating wireless technology into its strategic planning? Write to me at james_borck@infoworld.com and let me know what you think.