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Our annual list of hot technologies includes a few that exploded on the scene recently plus some that have been simmering for years and just now are coming into their own.

802.11n: The 'N' Stands for 'Now'

It's been a long time coming, but 802.11n is finally here. And that means wireless LANs now are a viable replacement for wired LANs.

Without delving too deeply into the past, we all remember the war-driving horror stories: buggy Wired Equivalent Privacy implementations, 802.11b technology that promised 10Mbps but barely delivered 5Mbps, 802.11g technology that promised 50Mbps but barely delivered 20Mbps, and prolonged standards battles over 802.11n.

Yes, Wi-Fi technology has been a tad disappointing. On the other hand, we have come to expect and appreciate wireless networks in our homes, coffee shops, airports and hotels. And employees, particularly younger ones, impatiently await the wireless workplace.

In Network World's groundbreaking test of 802.11n access points and controllers, 802.11n technology delivered impressive data rates of 250Mbps per access point. In addition, it delivered solid performance numbers on latency and jitter, which means it can support such real-time applications as voice and video. The systems we tested had a variety of enterprise-level features, such as Power over Ethernet; dynamic radio-frequency control; QoS; and such security functions as intrusion prevention and detection, Wi-Fi Protected Access 2, and stateful firewalls.

When it comes to new construction, 802.11n should be the default choice. The choice gets tricky, however, when it comes to existing networks. If you already have some 802.11a/b/g/, keep in mind that running a mixed network will result in significantly reduced bandwidth. In our tests, mixed-mode throughput was 24% of the throughput in an all-802.11n network.

Nevertheless, no matter how you decide to roll it out, 802.11n is ready for the enterprise.

Unified Communications: Getting Warmer

Unified communications is one of those technologies that's seemingly forever been on the verge of exploding but has never really become hot.

Maybe the reason is that the term "unified communications" means different things to different people. To the telecom manager, it means replacing the tried-and-true PBX with an IP-PBX from a traditional telephony hardware vendor or from an open source start-up - or maybe even jumping to a software-based platform from Microsoft.

To the desktop user, it means switching to an IP-based phone and taking advantage of a variety of such UC-based productivity applications as audio- and videoconferencing, instant messaging and presence, integrated voice and e-mail.

To BlackBerry-toting mobile workers, UC means being able to use the mobile devices to perform all the business functions associated with an office phone. They want calls made to their desktop phones to bounce to their mobile phones. They want to dial into the office and have their e-mails and voice mails read to them. They want all their devices to sync up seamlessly.

The good news is that all these features are available today from vendors including Alcatel-Lucent, Avaya, Cisco, IBM, Microsoft, Nortel and Siemens.

UC technology isn't setting the world on fire, but it is spreading inexorably across enterprise networks. Nemertes Research recently found that just 16% of the 120 companies it surveyed are doing nothing with UC. More than one-third (36%) are in an initial planning phase; 28% have a limited deployment of specific applications that make up the technology, or a full deployment to a limited number of people; and 19% have developed their strategies and are implementing the technology companywide.

What are the drivers of UC? Years ago, the decision was all about saving money and about moves, adds and changes. Last April, when Gartner asked early adopters to list the three biggest benefits of deploying UC, the top answers were employee collaboration, employee productivity and communication for distributed sites. Lower total cost of ownership came in last.

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