No Strings Attached

Flexible installation, increased productivity and continual access to information are all factors driving the deployment of wireless local area networks throughout the region.

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By  Zoe Moleshead Published  June 13, 2002

Information access|~||~||~|As enterprises strive to make information available to both employees and customers wherever they are and from any device, organisations are recognising the flexibility, cost savings and competitive advantage that can be gained by deploying wireless local area networks (WLANs).

“Regardless of the industry, the more competitive the situation gets, what differentiates the winners from the losers is their access to information. With wireless networks you can access that information,” says Gunnar Johansen, business development manager, advanced technologies, Cisco Systems, Middle East.

Tracking and accessing information is especially key in the logistics and delivery industry. As such, these industries have been among the first to deploy wireless networks and devices, installing them in warehouses and on delivery vans to enable information to be collected more effectively and then passed on to customers.

“It is almost as important to get the information to the customer or certainly to advise them of the status of the consignment as it is to get the actual consignment to the customer,” comments Bachi Spiga, Middle East regional services manager, DHL.

In order to facilitate the delivery of information to its customers DHL has installed a network of checkpoints, which supply updates on the location of a delivery. The express deliverers have deployed a solution called Mobile Checkpoint Return 2 (MCR 2), which allows visibility for deliveries or collections once consignments have been received or distributed.

“Within the network there is scanning and barcode registering that gives visibility at individual points of progress. We use wireless devices, for example, a simple scanner linked to a Siemens M35 mobile telephone,” explains Spiga.

“Every fifteen minutes data will be transferred through this tool to the network and that updates all the various customer service interfaces and our dispatch department. This then gives the customer the ability to go onto our web site and physically see the status upgrade or if they phone customer services they will have the status information for the customer,” he adds.

Each courier is armed with a PT31 Symbol scanner and within the DHL facility there are points designated for scanning consignments. Couriers also find scanning facilities at gateways, such as Customs Clearance areas.

“We have had wireless technologies available in the field for some time, but they were more restricted to wireless area networks (WANs), which meant the courier had to finish their deliveries, return to their vehicle and then return the data back to the office,” says Avtar Mamotra, IT manager, Gulf States, DHL.

“The technology that we have today lets the courier themself return delivery information. It is getting increasingly real time. Before this was introduced to the region we used to provide 33% of checkpoint returns within one hour. We are now doing 84% of checkpoint returns within 16 minutes,” he explains.

For DHL the benefits of mobilising workers through wireless solutions have been twofold, as it offers improved information access to its customers and adds value to its customer proposition with increasingly real-time consignment delivery and tracking information.

||**||Wireless LAN boom|~||~||~|The growing interest in wireless networks from various vertical sectors is undoubtedly driving the wireless industry forward. Reduced hardware costs are also helping, so much so, that vendors and analysts are predicting a boom within the wireless networking market.

“We saw [wireless local area network] prices go down over the course of 2000 and the first half of 2001, blowing our expectations way out of the water,” reports Gemma Paulo, analyst, Cahners In-Stat.

The analyst firm is now predicting that wireless local area network hardware sales will grow from US$1.8 billion in 2001 to $2.6 billion in 2004.

“The interest is across the board. It started about a year ago, enterprises were interested in gaining more knowledge about WLANs and now we are seeing that
curiosity translated into actual orders and big projects,” says Johansen.

The increased flexibility and employee productivity that wireless networks can provide have also helped to generate interest in the technology, particularly in light of the economic slowdown, when IT managers have been looking to maximise their investments in IT solutions.

“With the economic slowdown companies have had to become more competitive. With staff layoffs in many industries as well, the focus has now shifted to: ‘how can we make the remaining employees more productive.’ This has created a tremendous increase in the interest for wireless networking,” comments Johansen.

Cisco’s Johansen also reports that the majority of wireless network deployments are within offices as enterprise look to provide their “power users with the ability to roam around the office, the conference room and the lunch room and still have access to their critical data,” he says.

Locally, the market is also following the trend to mobilise employees and provide continual access to information. As a result, a proliferation of wireless local area networks are beginning to spring up and not just within offices, but also around the region’s academic institutes and expanding hospitality sector.

“The added value for the hotels is giving the guests — particularly business guests — constant connectivity throughout the hotel rooms, lobbies, restaurants and so on,” says Rifaat Al Karmi, data specialist, Avaya, Middle East.

Providing the business guest with access to the Internet or e-mail facilities is one of the key reasons that the Fairmont Dubai has deployed WLANs within its property. The hotel is aiming to establish itself as the premier business hotel in Dubai and offering connectivity to its business clientele is a must.

“We are installing Cisco’s Internet 350 products to provide wireless ports in all of the public spaces, the lobby, the first and second floor restaurants, the coffee shops, the 9th floor health spa, the pool decks and the 35th floor convention centre will all be wireless,” says David Blancard, director of technology operations, Fairmont Hotel & Groups.

||**||Benefits|~||~||~|But it is not just the fact that wireless networks offer enterprises the ability to provide connectivity and information anywhere within their properties that is driving adoption. It is also the flexibility they afford.

“Wireless LANs give greater flexibility to the teachers in the classroom, they can change the configuration of the class at anytime. If you have a wired classroom you are much more restricted to the configuration of the wires,” says Robin Stark, head of education services at Abu Dhabi Men’s College (ADMC).

ADMC is leading the drive towards WLANs within the UAE’s Higher Colleges of Technology (HCT). The wireless networks are not just adding flexibility within the classroom, but also providing the basis for ADMC’s move towards a laptop learning environment.

The college has installed 30 access points from Avaya around the campus in locations such as the learning resource centre (LRC) and the corridors. It hopes to have 1,300 students using laptops on the wireless network within the next year.

“Students can now move around the college freely with their laptops. One period they may want to study in the classroom, the next period they want to be working in a group in the LRC. They can do that without any problem linking up to the network,” explains Stark.

Flexibility, however, comes not just in the use of the WLAN but also in the installation of these networks. “Wireless is easy to deploy, you literally have your length of cable and your wired backbone that you can put an access point on, and from that you can gain an area of coverage,” says Mike Allen, senior director, channels, alliances & OEM, Symbol Technologies, Europe, Middle East & Africa.

For the General Exhibitions Corporation (GEC), WLANs are a more cost effective and simplistic set up, removing the headaches of having to cable every exhibition centre to suit its requirements. Wireless devices can also be reused by the company at other exhibitions.

“If we had laid cables we [often] have to throw them away at the end of the show because we are not sure if they are going to be useful in the future,” says Mohammed Bakir, systems administrator, GEC.

“When we compared the prices for a normal wired connection or a wireless connection we found that they were almost the same. But the benefit of having wireless is that after the show ends we will have it back in the store to use at other exhibitions,” he adds.

GEC set up a 60-user wireless network for press at the International Defence Exhibition (IDEX) in Abu Dhabi earlier this year. Using 3Com’s AirConnect access points the exhibition group rolled out Internet, e-mail and file/print services to users. GEC has continued to use the wireless solutions within its office.

“When we have guests in the office, or we need to set up Internet access for somebody with a notebook, we can simply set up an access point for them,” Bakir comments.

Although, there are many advantages to be gained from WLANs, both vendors and users recommend that enterprises carry out site studies before deploying wireless LANs. Not only does this establish the best coverage points, but also allows organisations to ensure their wireless network compliments their wired one.

“We don’t, in the foreseeable future, believe that wireless networks will take the place of wired networks. It is a very important supplement,” says Cisco’s Johansen.

“We are not looking to totally replace wired networks, we are looking to compliment,” concurs Symbol’s Allen.

“What we try to ensure is that wherever anyone moves within any area of coverage, the movement from one access point to another is seamless and that they cannot detect that they have not moved from one to another and do not notice any degradation in quality of service. We are focused on providing mobility rather than portability,” he adds.

||**||Obstacles|~||~||~|Although wireless networks may be growing in popularity there are still some issues to be addressed. In addition to concerns about area coverage, there are the questions about security and bandwidth.

The 802.11b wireless standard, which is ratified by the majority of vendors, provides Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP) beginning at 40-bit encryption to protect the data portion of each packet, the same encryption key is also used to scramble and unscramble packets leaving the network vulnerable.

“At the moment, with the shared key or WEP, every wireless product supports it therefore every wireless product can be used to infiltrate any network running these same protocols,” says Kenneth Neil, strategic account manager, business connectivity company, 3Com, Middle East & North Arfica.

Tales of drive by hacking and neighbours accessing WLANs have also hit the radio frequency-based technology.

“The wireless network is a shared medium – the air is open for everyone. When users are transmitting information everyone can listen, and users cannot talk until everyone else in the medium is quiet,” says Cisco’s Johansen.

Vendors have been working to addressing the security doubts that have dogged the emergence of wireless networks and have developed a variety of security protocols and technologies to enhance the security. Authenticating individual users as opposed to a PC is one method Cisco is using.

“We are advising enterprises to use either virtual private network (VPN) tunnelling or dynamic security link (DSL) because [they are] proprietary based solutions and are more difficult to hack,” states Neil.

Avaya’s Rifaat also recommends the use of VPN technology and says the wireless equivalency privacy version 2 (WEP 2) has helped to dispel many of the security concerns.

“WEP 2 is the strongest wireless encryption available in the market today. This is VPN over wireless and supports 168-bit encryption, which is equal to e-banking encryption,” he explains.

However, vendors are keen to argue that the responsibility for security lies not just with them. Enterprise-wide security policies are a must says Johansen, who also reports that many companies make common mistakes such as, “using simple network management features as a security feature.”

Bandwidth constraints have also hindered wireless networks in the region. Not only do speeds differ between various wireless devices, but the radio frequency and shared set up of WLANs also impact speeds. “We are transmitting over radio waves, and there is only so much frequency available to us,” states Johansen.

“The wired network will offer better bandwidth, better quality of service and dedicated access to each desktop rather than a wireless network which will always be a shared medium. The wireless access points can be compared to a hub, while a wired network a switch and the difference is how many are sharing that medium,” he adds.

The 802.11b wireless standard only offers 11 M/bits/s, which limits its use for transferring large amounts of data or multimedia files.

“With a wired network today Gigabit speeds are readily and easily available to the desktop. Currently, on the wireless network you should be happy if you get 10 M/bits throughput. This is why we don’t see wireless as a complete replacement for wired networks, but for office applications, calendar, e-mail, databases, for that kind of information 10 M/bits/s is more than sufficient,” says Johansen.

GEC’s Bakir also agrees, “you don’t deploy a wireless network to run large database driven applications. You use it for quick and easy access to simple services.”
Vendors even argue that smaller bandwidths are more than capable of handling data for PDAs or handheld computers.

“If you have a handheld computer with a screen that is only 18 lines long by 20 characters then the amount of data that you are actually pushing through the device and the network is very small. Therefore you can get away with a smaller bandwidth of 2 M/bits/s,” says Symbol’s Allen.

The proposed 802.11a will also help to allay bandwidth questions by raising access speeds to 54 M/bits/s and operating on a 5 GHz frequency range.

With costs of mobile and wireless devices falling and wireless network speeds continuing to rise, vendors believe the momentum towards WLANs will gather steam and further cement the movement towards mobile workers.

“The significant availability of inexpensive hardware, like handheld computers, PDAs and smart phones should tilt the balance in favour of mobility. Faster wireless networks and innovative mobile applications that are easy to implement… also add weight to the argument for mobile computing,” says Jacquie Carson, Fujitsu Siemens.

Vendors largely believe that wireless networks have already established themselves within the networking market, and suggest that future developments will not necessarily bring anything radically new to the technology.

“Wireless LAN has proven itself as a technology. Enterprises understand that it can be safe and applied to any type of business, even banks. Other sceptics will [soon] follow the move toward WLANs,” states Fredrik Phumberg, director of channel developments, Ericsson, Europe, Middle East & Africa.

“The next step is bringing it out to mobility, and that’s why are now showing that you can go out of the office with a wireless LAN session and handover to a public network like GPRS or public hotspots. We are not so much inventing new applications as making it simpler for the users of these technologies,” Phumberg adds.
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