Corporate Wi-Fi efforts are still struggling
- By John K. Waters
Wireless in the workplace took center stage at last week's Wi-Fi Planet
conference in San Jose, Calif. More than 115 vendors exhibited their wares at
the newly re-christened tradeshow, formerly called 802.11 Planet. The name
change, said conference chairman Ted Stevenson, reflects the ''widening
recognition of the Wi-Fi brand and the growing popularity of the technology
According to Steve Nye, general manager of the Building Broadband Solutions
unit of Cisco Systems, adoption of wireless LAN (WLAN) technologies has been
faster on the consumer side than in the enterprise because of concerns about
security, deployment complexity and management, as well as a general perception
that the return on investment (ROI) in the technology is low.
Nevertheless, many of the early problems associated with WLAN technologies
have been, if not exactly solved, at least addressed, Nye said during his
conference keynote. The refinement of Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA), for example,
has addressed many of the concerns about security that plagued first-generation
Wi-Fi, he said. In addition, the ongoing work of the Institute of Electrical and
Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and its 802.11i Working Group will ''put to bed the
perception that security is an issue.'' The 802.11i specification is being
designed to support stronger encryption, better key management and
authentication, he said.
Concerns about deployment and management issues are being addressed by new
products that employ a common management scheme that integrates WLANs into wired
LANs, Nye said.
Addressing the issue of ROI, Nye cited statistics from a recent study that
found workers in WLAN-enabled organizations were connected to their companies'
networks 1.75 hours more per day than organizations without the wireless
networks. In 2003, that study found, workers in WLAN-enabled companies were
connected 3.5 hours more each day. Nye's conclusion: ''If we can provide the
tools to our employees, they can now work when they want, where they want.''
However, the adoption rate of Wi-Fi is sure to be stalled again unless the
industry overcomes barriers to anytime, anywhere connectivity -- what Nye called
''seamless roaming.'' He cited a study that predicted that approximately 80% of
laptops would be wireless-enabled by 2005. As more and more devices emerge with
built-in support for wireless networking, users ''... have to be able to open
their laptops and logon wherever they are,'' Nye said. ''When this occurs ...
that's when [Wi-Fi] will really take off and when behavioral change will occur.
And that's when we will have changed this paradigm from working in one place to
working anywhere we want.''
As far as Les Vadasz was concerned, Wi-Fi's problems are far from solved.
Vadasz, one of the founders of Intel, now retired, brought conference attendees
a sobering message during his keynote presentation: Much work remains if Wi-Fi
is to proliferate. The best place to start, Vadasz said, was with ease of
''I don't know what the hell you are thinking,'' said Vadasz, speaking
figuratively to Wi-Fi equipment makers. ''Are you designing these products for
the fellow in the next cubicle or for consumers?''
Vadasz cited as an example the current requirement of many WLANs that the
users manually enter the Service Set Identifier (SSID), the 32-character
identifiers attached to the header of packets sent over WLANs, which act as
passwords when mobile devices try to connect to the network. ''Grandma does not
do SSID,'' Vadasz said. ''SSID should never appear!''
Only about one-fourth of users can install their wireless equipment without
assistance, Vadasz said. ''Resellers complain that customers call for help even
before opening the box!'' he noted.
Next on the Vadasz list: security. More than two-thirds of network architects
at large enterprises fear that adding wireless would compromise their network
security, while more than half of the executives see so-called rogue access
points as a serious security problem.
Wireless networks are easier to corrupt and access than wired networks,
Vadasz said. ''There are solutions for this, but they are either not readily
available or cumbersome.'' Although he applauded the current work of the IEEE on
802.11i, he lamented that the working group's solution is long overdue. He
wondered whether the solution was delayed because of technical issues or because
the group has become a ''debating society.''
John K. Waters is a freelance writer based in Silicon Valley. He can be reached