Wi-Fi Isn't the Best Way to Network...Right?

So many people commented and sent e-mail about last week's column on WiFi I had to check and make sure I didn't accidentally insult Apple or claim Linux was better than Windows. Nope, I just said WiFi wasn't always the best way to network. Nobody disagreed with my assertions that WiFi runs slower and is less secure than wired networks, but many readers suggested the WiFi train is the way to the future, so I should hop on. All aboard?

While I used to say WiFi cost more than wired networks, the lowered cost of WiFi and the higher cost of labor to run new network cables has reversed the cost equation for many connections. Laptops almost always have WiFi support today, and adding WiFi to a desktop costs a minimal amount. Running new wires cost more than adding WiFi to a desktop and the cost of a wireless access point. Everyone except the Cable Runners Union agrees WiFi wins almost all cost comparisons when you include wiring labor for new installations.

Looking at specialized wiring problems tips the scales even more toward WiFi. Historic building? Can't cable. Open spaces like warehouses? Can't cable. Need to support an extra 700 networked people for special event? Can't cable.

As you move upstream from a small company with consumer-level WiFi, your wireless options get better but your price gets higher. When you need a special WiFi configuration, nothing satisfies unusual WiFi needs better than a Xirrus WiFi Array. The big saucer-shaped housings look like UFOs from science fiction movies in the 1950's, but they include up to 24 802.11abg+n radios with integrated antennas that direct WiFi support to any and all points on the compass. An onboard multi-gigabit network switch makes this really more a wireless network switching device than a standard WiFi access point.

These WiFi saucers, excuse me, WiFi arrays provide more reach, control and capacity than most of the competition. Need to supply reliable WiFi to a ballroom full of Web surfing wireless laptop users at one time? Xirrus should be on your shopping list.

If you do need to support a ballroom full of WiFi devices, you're probably more a medium sized business (the M in Small/Medium Business) than a small one. That's the size of company where wireless laptop users can get away with checking e-mail or Facebook during meetings.

Some readers said I'm unfair because I singled out laptop users, when those fondling their Blackberry or iPhones can check e-mail and Facebook during meetings as well. You're right, I was unfair. To be fair and have a better meeting, put all communication devices for all attendees on the table far enough away that no one can grab and use their device without being noticed. Everyone, not just WiFi laptop users, should focus on the meeting.

Apple's Airport Extreme, more expensive than most consumer and some small business wireless access points, now includes a "guest" mode. This provides the same benefit as more expensive access points that rely on a separate network for security separation. If you're a Mac averse company, this won't help. If you see, as I have, that most road warriors who need constant wireless connections have mobile broadband support already, you can choose not to go to the trouble and expense of a guest wireless network for your lobby.

The larger you get, and the more visitors you have wandering around, or even contractors on site, the more you'll have to extend this courtesy. If you have non-employees working with employees, a separate WiFi guest network may be needed everywhere your company WiFi network goes. Be prepared. Increase your security access controls for resources like servers and file systems in this situation, because some employees will just offer a wired Ethernet port to visitors, no matter what your security policy says.

As far as broadcasting your wireless SSID (Service Set Identifier), you might as well do it. It makes connecting clients easier, and if you don't broadcast it, Microsoft Windows clients will. Constantly. Chalk up another oddity, both on Microsoft's part and on the WiFi committees that wrote the protocol allowing Microsoft clients to blast the SSID regularly.

One of the hard lessons for WiFiFanatics is dealing with a polluted wireless environment. If you're a small company sharing a building with multiple other companies, you may find so many wireless networks around you can't get a clear signal.

In high-tech office areas, the WiFi noise blankets the spectrum and may leave you no clear channel to use. When this happens, try 802.11n, the "almost standard" standard that uses more advanced technology to help fight WiFi pollution. Or start stringing wires. When it's so bad employees joke about cooking popcorn using the WiFi signals polluting the office rather than a microwave, wires look pretty good.

If the cost of wiring hurts, look at your phone system for answers. Voice over the Internet phone systems, getting more popular by the day, need data wiring rather than the old style phone cable wiring. When you run that wire for your VoIP phone, you can use that same wire for your computer's data connection (VoIP phones usually have a computer port built in to share that one line). Two birds, one wire, and you shift the cost from the data network budget to the phone budget. Tell the phone guys thanks for running those wires for you.

Is wired always better than wireless? No. Is wireless always better than wired? No. Evaluate your network situation, weigh your options, and then choose your network connection methods. All but the very small businesses may find you'll wind up with a mix of wired and wireless connections.

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