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LANs on the run: Wireless shifts to distributed systems

Tomorrow's Wi-Fi deployments will geographically-dispersed installations.

If you take a look at the numbers and projections surrounding 802.11 Wi-Fi, it would be hard to dispute the current success and future expansion of this wireless technology. Right now, there are 4.2 million Wi-Fi wireless networks in place and operational, according to analysts, and that figure is expected to grow to roughly 31 million by 2007. There are also close to 22.5 million Wi-Fi-enabled devices in existence today, and an expected 40 million by 2005.

It is also estimated that as much as 98% of all the notebook computers shipped worldwide will have some kind of embedded Wi-Fi capability by 2007 -- which means you won't have to worry about leaving your Wi-Fi card in a hotel room, or snapping it in two as you jam the system back into your bag after bustling through airport security.

The fact is that plain old vanilla Wi-Fi is quickly becoming an expected option in both public and private spaces. During a trip to Atlanta last week, we even had wireless access in our hotel room at the Atlanta Hilton, instead of the usual CAT cable connection. Cometa Networks -- a company formed in late 2002 by IBM, Intel and AT&T -- is also focused on saturating urban areas with 802.11 wireless access.

In fact, its first major effort was launched earlier this year in Seattle, WA, which now claims to have the greatest density of wireless availability of any city in the U.S. Companies such as Intel Corp. are also working on so-called 'metropolitan area networks', which expand that wireless access bubble to about a 30-mile radius. The idea is that very shortly it will pretty much be impossible to step out your door or even walk your dog without stumbling over an available wireless signal.

If Wi-Fi is so hot, though, why are so many IT managers still resisting widespread wireless technology? More importantly, why has wireless so quickly become a commodity item to the extent that most people give it as much though as an AC power socket? Sure, mobile workers still diligently sniff out an available wireless signal at airports and hotel lobbies, and there are those that will purposely buy a Starbucks super-duper half-latte el grande coffee tanker just so they can sit for hours wirelessly checking e-mail and cruising the Web -- although statistics show the actual number of people specifically going to a Starbucks or other caffeine watering-hole to do this is significantly lower than initially expected.

Also, with general Wi-Fi becoming so commonplace and affordable, there is a rapidly shrinking incentive for major hardware and software companies to focus a lot of attention and development effort because of the lower profit margins poor return on investment for basic-level wireless deployments. As a result, many of these companies and systems integrators are concentrating on more sophisticated levels of Wi-Fi (802.11a, and so on), and many more are looking for the next wave of wireless development and deployments.

In most cases, these deployments will involve single-building or campus-wide wireless activities, but geographically-dispersed departmental and divisional wireless installations. In short, the next wave will involve wireless-enabling hundreds of corporate divisions locate throughout the U.S. or another country, and not just a single building.

One wireless company shifting away from 'white-collar enterprise' activities is Columbitech, Inc., a wireless systems developer based in Sweden that has established a conservative deployment beachhead here in the U.S. While the company has not abandon secure wireless development for large enterprise organizations (in this case, offering a non-IPsec approach), it has recently focused more attention on strategic vertical segments involving large-scale retail deployments. In fact, the company is partnering with Symbol Technologies and Hewlett-Packard Co. o a number of projects in Europe, and is pitching in on a project for one of the larger retailers in the U.S.

Columbitech's edge is in creating secure wireless clients for legacy devices, like scanners and POS terminals, says CEO Pontus Bergdahl. "There has been a lack of legacy support for handheld devices," he notes, "and this has been a roadblock for companies like Symbol to close deals."

The deals also extend outside the retail sphere, involving such high-profile clients as NATO and military organizations, a large insurance company in Portugal, and an arm of the British Parliament.

Before deciding to expand beyond the white-collar enterprise world, Columbitech pushed secure roaming as its primary development strength. This involve providing the wireless 'secret sauce' -- Pontus's term, not ours! -- to allow tens of thousands of users to seamlessly roam from one wireless signal and technology to another without having to re-authenticate each time. A great idea, and one that has been adopted buy a number of wireless companies over the past year or two. The problem is that most enterprises presently have a limited need for widespread wireless roaming.

The LAN ecosystem
Most early customers were more concerned about wireless reliability, compression and other issues. They were also worried about tying together all types of devices in a wireless network. As a result, the company switched its strategic focus a bit, and now is looking to integrate its technology into such things as Symbol's wireless switches. In fact, Columbitech has negotiated an exclusive agreement with Symbol for DOS client devices, says Bergdahl.

Columbitech is not alone, however, in shifting its focus beyond the four walls of corporations to service the needs of the thousand or more branch offices and outlets of a Wal-Mart or McDonald's. In the past few months, a number of other hot wireless companies like Bluesocket, Inc., ReefEdge Inc. and others have altered their strategic plans to accommodate a growing demand to wireless-enable branch offices and the remote locations of a business, while at the same time maintaining connections to centralize WANs and other wireless LANs. A lot of these plans will be backed up by new products and technologies slated to hit the streets early next month, all of which target the evolution of the 'wireless LAN ecosystem', said a ReefEdge executive just recently.

There are, of course, still a number of challenges to tackle and overcome. These include developing completely autonomous yet symbiotic wireless systems, designing systems that incorporate many of the same features of a fault-tolerant computing system, and creating applications that can not only support older technology but are able to easily be expanded and improved without requiring yet another technology revolution. We like to compare such networks to the operation of the national power grid, since it too is designed to adapt with the demands and flows of users and is relatively reliable when it comes to providing its end product.

Nothing is foolproof, though, as evidenced by the mini-meltdown of the power grid a few months ago when several states were suddenly knocked offline. The same offline experience can essentially happen to a widely-dispersed wireless system. Hopefully, as wireless systems become more intuitive and support technology less reactive the possibility of this happening will decrease. Until then, pull up a wireless seat at your nearest Starbucks, order that over-sized and vaguely-named high-octane drink, and watch closely as wireless technology evolves from its current generic state.

Tim Scannell is the president and chief analyst with Shoreline Research, a Quincy, Mass.-based consulting company specializing in mobile and wireless technology and initiatives. Shoreline works with end users, looking to implement mobile solutions, and vendors, developing new products and seeking business and customer opportunities. The company also specializes in training and strategic planning projects. For more information on Shoreline Research and the company's strategic services please go to

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