Signal failure

Network infrastructure accounts for some of the biggest expenditure for modern enterprises, but analysts are now predicting that wireless deployments will start to overtake it.

Tags: FVC - First Video Communications IncorporationFujairah National GroupGartner IncorporationRoads and Transport AuthorityUnited Arab Emirates
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Signal failure GUHA: With wired connections, at least you know if someone is trying to use a cable to illegally connect to some socket.
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By  Imthishan Giado Published  June 27, 2009 Arabian Computer News Logo

At this point in time, the Ethernet cable is as ubiquitous in the modern office as the telephone. Enterprises would never dream of setting up a new location without first installing network support services for office users.

But that's today - what about tomorrow? A Gartner analyst recently predicted that by 2011, 70% of all new network ports will be wireless - a figure that if correct, could well mean the days of the Ethernet port are numbered. Already, most enterprises utilise a mixture of both fixed and wireless networking depending on the location, although the ratio seems heavily tilted in favour of fixed line networking.

What happens is that many times, it’s a post-facto: people first have an architecture for the building, they build it and then they come to IT to provide IT services. Often, IT finds that in certain areas, there are no containment systems to pull wires and so on and that’s how this problem comes up.

Guru Prasad, general manager of networking distribution company, FVC, explains the various pros and cons: "Let's talk about the pros for wired networking, the key is the speed at which wired networking can connect. Second is the security aspect in terms of being static and easily protectable in terms of physical security. Third is the flexibility in terms of the connection media. The cons however, are that fixed networks are far more time consuming and expensive to deploy than their wireless counterparts while also being heavily tied to the physical structure of the buildings used.

"Au contraire, for wireless networks, the pros are ease and quick deployment, and second is the ability to provide flexibility in terms of connectivity. The cons are speed - the speed at which wireless networking technology is increasing is not as fast as we would have liked it to be. The security aspects are really something that we need to look at. Customers are queasy with the amount of money they have to spend in order to improve security on a wireless network," continues Prasad.

Indeed, the repeated refrain from end-users is that security is still a concern, even after all the years of development by vendors. Indranil Guha, manager of IT infrastructure management at the UAE's Roads and Transport Authority, has wireless IP phones in his future plans for the organisation, but notes that he will only consider ones that come with WPA2 encryption.

"Some IP phones do not have WPA encryption yet, but most of them are getting there from a security perspective. WEP encryption is not as secure and could be broken fairly easily, so WPA is the way to go. I've seen it in large corporates, even hospitals, they have VOIP phones and it's WEP encrypted, which is a potential backdoor to the network, if it is not WPA-enabled," he explains.

"These are the cons of Wi-Fi - all the services are not WPA enabled. You probably then make a judgement between whether you go for a WEP encrypted service or - if it's not WPA-enabled - not have that service. That's a calculated management risk one has to take," cautions Guha.

For most CIOs, the most difficult task in planning in a new infrastructure is determining what resources employees will need access to and the connections required therein - a problem compounded by a recent uneven shift in enterprises towards mobile computing. The RTA's Guha describes his planning guidelines.

"If we are opening a new site we have a wired network. That's the first thing - IT services are provided as part of RTA policy and a wired network would be there. If there are a number of senior people, the count usually exceeding ten, then we provide wireless LAN coverage to that campus. When I say senior people, it's because they have laptops. The junior people are using desktops so it doesn't really make sense to have wireless coverage in that area," he says.

"For example, in the customer service counter where it will be front-end people servicing customers through a desktop, then we will 99% not enable a wireless LAN in that campus. But if there's a building which has got customer service and about five to six senior management people having laptops, then probably we will do a wireless LAN coverage.

Based on the necessity, we would just do probably a couple of meeting rooms initially. If it's a large campus - we have a building in Muhaisnah which is fairly large and has about 300-400 people over there and senior management up to CEO level, there the whole building is covered," elaborates Guha.

Syed Anisuddin, IT manager at the Fujairah National Group (FNG) has a more conservative outlook, limiting the use of wireless connections within his companies to only the most essential users - which are mostly visitors.

"We can say that it's only 10% wireless because we don't need it. Wherever we have an external client from outside and if they are browsing the internet, then what should happen is that we make a separate gateway and provide them with a wireless connection. In places where we know that we are going to completely configure the visitors' laptops, then we have a secured network and do the setup. Anything in wireless has to be done in a more secure way. With wired connections, we are aware of who is getting connected," he states.

It's cropped up a few times already and there's no doubt that security is one of the key reasons why CIOs are still uneasy about investing in extensive wireless infrastructure. Guha says that one of the reasons why enterprises still prefer regular wired LANs is the visibility of potential attackers.

"If I have a wireless LAN presence in a corporate network and it's not properly secured, then I have the LAN signal available to me anywhere in the corporate campus where I move around. If I have a wired network and my unused ports on the switches are not closed, then the same risk is there from a security standpoint. But being wired, at least you know that it's an external person who's come in and who's trying to use a cable to connect to some socket. At least it's more visible, rather than somebody sitting in a reception couch and trying to use the network," he warns.

The proliferation of wireless standards such as 802.11a, 802.11b and now 802.11g has certainly not helped things either, but Guha believes encryption standards are the real problem.

"It's probably necessary for the applications to catch up with the WPA protocol. There are a lot of applications out there on Wi-Fi which were on the earlier WEP encryption. Many vendors have now upgraded their applications on that. But I think the issue is the applications being secure enough to work on the Wi-Fi networks," he believes.

Speed is the other stumbling block according to FVC's Prasad: "Today, the fastest speed on outbuilding wireless connectivity you can get is still one gig. However, those speeds can only be established over very short distances. You can get one gig on wireless connectivity today but only within a two to five kilometre range. If you really want connectivity with high speeds to connect datacentres or high-performance applications, wireless definitely doesn't fit in there."

However, there is one aspect of wireless deployment that often gets overlooked - namely, that sometimes it's the only option. As Guha recalls, many buildings are constructed without first consulting with IT - which leads to the development lacking facilities for wired connections, mandating the use of wireless transmitters.

"There's a lack of communication, in understanding converged networks, between the building and facilities departments or the contractor's side. What happens is that many times, it's a post-facto: people first have an architecture for the building, they build it and then they come to IT to provide IT services. Often, IT finds that in certain areas, there are no containment systems to pull wires and so on and that's how this problem comes up," he relates.

Guha recalls that the RTA was formed out of elements from Dubai Municipality and Dubai Police, and when he joined, several procedures were brought over: "We had set up this process in Dubai Municipality also that an architectural drawing of the office layout and containment systems are actually signed by the IT department before it goes to construction. That's a process we have and it's an agreed process."

"This was put into place pretty much from the beginning when RTA IT services were started in April 2006. We even developed something called OLA - operational level agreements - because we follow the ITIL standard. These are the OLAs we are working out with the departments to sign off. They have to come and get our approval on the architecture diagrams, the containment systems, the floor layouts, whether there'll be a raised floor, whether there'll be no raised floor. Everything is signed off and then it goes into construction," he continues.

FNG's Anisuddin agrees: "Once a building structure is ready, we get involved from the flooring point of view and completely follow it up before the total structure is ready. There should be a culture where people understand how important IT is. We've had old buildings where we found that there is no option but to have wireless. Sometimes the infrastructure is not ready; we may then use wireless for six to seven months, then when things are ready, then we can always change it to the wired one."

All this evidence seems to stand in contradiction to Gartner's belief that in 2011, 70% of all network ports will be wireless. Guha believes that the figure is possible, but only in the very largest enterprises.

"My personal opinion is if we are talking of the really advanced corporates, maybe that's correct, that's more or less the number. If we are taking a cross-section from a large to enterprise-level corporate, I think it would not be more than 50%. Access to shared files and so on is still quite important in corporate networks. On the management layer on the other hand, it could be 90%.

If I say the RTA has 3000 users, by 2011 how many would be using the wireless network on a 100% basis and not connecting a cable? I would say about 1000 to 1500. The remaining 1500 are staff who are at their desks servicing customers. So that's about 33% by 2011."

One prediction Gartner did not choose to make is when the world might see a future completely without wired connections of any kind - presumably because that Star Trek-type scenario is far too unlikely to even contemplate yet. FVC's Prasad doesn't see it happening, but he does think that emerging markets will be the ones to push the wireless agenda.

"If you look at countries like India, where wireless infrastructure is growing faster than wired, primarily because of the way as a country they have developed, these countries are actually seeing a faster growth in wireless than wired infrastructure. In countries like the US or Europe, their wired infrastructure is very advanced," he says.

"So emerging markets are the clear adopters in terms of wireless technology. But there has to be a clear study in terms of the requirement and then weigh the pros and cons in term of what really is the right solution to provide business value at the end. Today, there is a case for both to coexist in a way that provides value as well as the much needed security that an organisation needs," maintains Prasad.

RTA's Guha is more pessimistic in his assessment: "Zero cables - I don't think it's possible. However, with machine to machine communication in medical and the hospitality sectors, you will still have a degree of wiring done but it will be multi service. We are already getting there, it's not one wire for a security system or a wire for building management - it'll be converged wires.

"The cost of wiring will really reduce. As Gartner is saying, 70% in three years? I don't think that's across the cross-section. But about 70% to 75% in the next seven to ten years? Yes, maybe and even up to 90% also," he concludes.

Which Vertical?

It's not always obvious which vertical is more likely to opt for wireless infrastructure over a wired one. Guru Prasad from distributor FVC offers his thoughts.

"In terms of applications, for example, retail, shop floors, manufacturing, wireless is becoming one of the best options to keep their employees fully connected and productive. You will definitely see a lot of more ruggedised, wireless solutions being offered and adopted in these kind of environments. In the corporate environment, of course, wireless is very much a part of it, more from the flexibility perspective than actually providing a full-time always connected enterprise infrastructure.

"We're seeing more in terms of manufacturing. We're also seeing it in terms of hospitality that wireless is a good way of connecting. Healthcare is one area which is also considering wireless connectivity, especially when you're looking at the new applications like telemedicine, medical consulting business, wireless is becoming very big," he says.

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