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Wired Network Edge vs. Wireless Edge

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A survey by WLAN vendor Meraki in June found that for the first time smartphones and tablets like the Apple iPhone and iPad have overtaken computers on Wi-Fi networks. The finding highlights the argument over how much wired LAN infrastructure companies need, or should have when users' connection expectations are for reliable wireless.

In 2010, Windows and Mac clients were 64% of all devices connecting to Wi-Fi networks, according to the Meraki data. By contrast, iOS devices accounted for 32% and Android just 1%. But by the first half of 2011, these smart devices accounted for 58% of the Wi-Fi devices, and desktops and laptops were just over one-third, or 36%.


BACKGROUND:802.11n Wi-Fi still evolving

These newer devices can only access a corporate network wirelessly. Increasingly, employees have two or more Wi-Fi enabled clients, and their usage patterns are different from traditional laptop users: there are numerous individual connections during a work day, for example. All of these characteristics are putting new stress and demands on Wi-Fi networks.

[See "Wi-Fi client surge forcing fresh wireless LAN thinking"]

Where mobile and wireless devices are especially prevalent, some IT groups are rethinking the wired edge of the network, especially when they face upgrades to access layer Ethernet switches. Colleges and universities that spent over a decade and a ton of money running Ethernet cables to dorm room ("a port for every pillow") now discover that 50% to over 90% of those wired ports are never used. One university IT staffer said most students wouldn't even know what to do with a patch cable.

But many sites put a premium on high, dedicated end user bandwidth, on security, reliability and guaranteed QoS. Repeatedly, in comments to previous Network World stories in this topic, these were cited as reasons to stick with cabled connections and leave Wi-Fi as a convenience for some users and visitors. Others argue that a properly designed enterprise WLAN, with rigorous spectrum analysis, network management features and powerful enterprise-grade access points ends up being almost as expensive as a wired network.

Data on port shipments don't yet indicate this argument is over. Recent figures by In-Stat show that shipped Layer 2 and 3 Ethernet ports for access class switches growing strongly, with Fast Ethernet ports growing more slowly. Gigabit Ethernet ports grew from 62 million in 2008 to 103.5 million in 2010. Fast Ethernet ports sales grew from 78 million to 89 million in the same three-year period. Shipments of 802.11n WLAN units, including access points, gateways, routers and network adapters, rose from 13 million in 2008 to 45 million by the end of 2010.

Enterprise adoption of 802.11n, which offers much higher throughput and more reliable signals, continues, "but the movement toward the all-wireless enterprise still has to overcome hurdles (whether real or perceived) before it becomes the de facto standard for edge-of-the-network connectivity," according to Gartner's March 2011 "Magic Quadrant for Wireless LAN Infrastructure."

And just adding 802.11n access points won't solve the problem. Gartner analyst Paul DeBeasi told attendees at a recent Gartner conference that 80% of newly installed WLANs will be obsolete by 2015 due to a lack of proper planning. Among other things, IT groups need wireless expertise, and the tools to design and monitor a pervasive WLAN, including monitoring and troubleshooting radio frequency issues.

Network upgrades offer companies a chance to re-assess their wired investments, along with their application requirements. At the very least, some may be able to reduce the wired edge, and its costs, even if the "all-wireless" enterprise remains mainly a talking point for WLAN marketeers.

John Cox covers wireless networking and mobile computing for Network World.Twitter: RSS feed:

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This story, "Wired Network Edge vs. Wireless Edge" was originally published by Network World.

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