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Will Mesh Revolutionize Wireless Networks?

Mesh networks–Netlike communications network sin which there are at least two pathways to each node–are not new, but they present new opportunities and challenges to owners of wireless networks

Wireless networks are infiltrating organizations around the globe, particularly in the United States. Industry after industry is finding new and attractive business benefits to unwiring. The hospitality industry is one example. According to Pyramid Research, about 6,000 hotels worldwide are expected to offer wireless access to their guests by the end of this year. Generally, the cost to deploy a traditional wireless network to provide guest broadband access to each room is about half that of a wired network.

Organizations, including hotels, have been able to further reduce costs by implementing a wireless mesh network that not only eliminates the time and expenses of most Ethernet wiring but also allows the network to be accessed in all areas of a building.

Structured Wireless
Structured wiring revolutionized local area networks and information technology strategies. Wireless LANs–specifically mesh networks–are creating another revolution. Call it ¡°structured wireless.¡±

Some IT planning consultants view wireless LANs as simply a feature of the wired network, or as a logical extension of the wires. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Instead of simply extending the IT strategy to include wireless, the smart planner takes advantage of structured wireless as an opportunity to exploit fundamental differences in the technologies with a resulting payoff to the business.

First, there is the potential for wire replacement with its savings in capital and operating expenses. Second, structured wireless removes restrictions on employee mobility, placing people at the site of data and fundamentally improving business processes.

The thoughtful IT planner must also devise risk mitigation strategies. For example, mobility comes at a price–the physical port no longer defines the user. This creates the need for fundamentally different access and security policies. Well-designed structured wireless systems include the required tools to mitigate risks and eliminate worries.

Reduced Costs
The nature of mesh networks provides clear benefits: wireless links eliminate the cost of Ethernet cabling to every access point, self-organizing and healing features lower the cost of administration and operation, and a mesh¡¯s inherent ability to scale with new users makes adds, moves and changes, far less costly.

The potential for wire replacement is dramatic. A medium-sized building with 150 users and approximately 50,000 square feet requires nearly five miles of cabling to wire every user. Traditional wireless LAN equipment, be it standalone access points or switched gear, requires about one-half mile of cabling. A mesh network needs only three feet–a dramatic change in the cost to deploy a network.

And when it comes to daily operations–moves, adds and changes–a wireless mesh can cost up to 98 percent less than its wired counterpart.

Clearly in-building wires will not disappear, as they provide speed advantages for large file transfers or demanding applications, such as computer aided design tools. But an IT strategy must allow for wireless integration and for capturing cost savings wherever possible.

For example, a structured wireless network can cross the road–without a trench or permit–to connect multiple in-building systems. And it enables wireless nodes to be placed anywhere users require broadband access but wires cannot reach–such as in the middle of a factory floor, car dealership lot or outdoor transportation yard.

Improving the technology
Traditional wireless networks are a collection of access points that depend on the wired network plus gateways, appliances or so-called wireless switches. Even so, many companies report significant benefits ranging from anecdotal productivity improvements to carefully measured improvements in accuracy and asset turnover. Structured wireless networks deliver these same benefits but without the wait for installers, conduit, cabling, or switches. And they extend the benefits farther than wire–or traditional wireless–can reach in the business.

The no-wires aspect of a wireless mesh eliminates the restrictions of specific desks or offices. Instead, structured wireless gives network access to users in conference rooms, shop floors, inventory yards, and related campus buildings. With a remote edge node and a wireless backhaul, business continuity can be maintained even when buildings are evacuated.

In short, the notion of ¡°network¡± can be redefined around the business need, work operations, the data, and the employees without regard for wired port locations. This expands the reach of benefits, for example enabling data entry at the point of origin, elimination of errors from handwriting, and immediate cross-correlation of data to avoid adverse affects or to match orders and inventory.

Traditional wireless solutions often cannot reach all of the point-of-origin data sites, leaving physical gaps in coverage and logical gaps in the process. Structured wireless, by design, extends beyond the reach of wired ports.

Easing IT Management Worries
Structured wireless networks are designed to provide benefits for the line of business manager while providing the IT manager with the ability to secure, control, and manage the network.

By design, a structured wireless network is an engineered system. A properly designed managed mesh secures itself, assuring automatic authentication and encryption over the wireless mesh links. The control software continually scans the environment and selects the best combination of radio channels and available links to maintain optimum performance end-to-end.

And, by design, a structured wireless network includes its own management and security tools while drawing upon resources available in the wired network to avoid duplication.
For example, wireless gateways often provide their own DHCP server and authentication server. Thus they require duplicate administration and do not seamlessly manage the user over both the wired and wireless segments of the corporate network. A structured wireless network does not duplicate IT functions and is designed to readily integrate with them.

For example, a structured wireless network could employ standard Microsoft XP clients in laptop computers, along with the authentication and authorization facilities available in Microsoft Server 2003. Mobile users can be administered with the same login and password, and receive the same privileges, on both the wired and the wireless networks, providing a seamless integration from the user¡¯s point of view. All the while, the IT manager maintains strict control of access to both the network and the corporate files.

It began when early users introduced rogue access points to unhook themselves from their desks. It evolved into today¡¯s new IT strategic plan that redefines the network to embrace mobile users, frees the users from a dependence on wired ports, and works backwards from business needs to control mechanisms. Welcome aboard.

Bob Jordan is co-founder and vice president of Strix Systems. Jordan has served as COO at Acorn Technologies, vice president of cable television optical networking at Ortel Corp., vice president of marketing at ADC Fibermux Corp., and vice president of product management at Ungermann-Bass. Jordan is a graduate of the United States Naval Academy with a Bachelor of Science degree in nuclear physics. He can be reached at [email protected]

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