Wireless networking in the enterprise is all about getting work done. And work may not always mean e-mail or messaging, or those other nice features you're finding on your iPhone or Android device.
Instead, the work reflects the nature of the enterprise: Whether it's Sandburg's hog butchers, tool makers, stackers of wheat, railroad or freight handlers, it's about the work that companies and their employees do. When you see wireless in the enterprise, it's as likely to be on a gritty loading dock in the back of the receiving facility or bolted to the side of a forklift as it is to be in a brightly lit office somewhere upstairs.
That's why the big news in wireless and mobile computing isn't that there are iPhone apps for some things. The really important news is that wireless communication is reaching the point at which enterprise IT managers can depend on it for fast, reliable communications-both in and out of the building. Because of this, 802.11n and 3G or 4G wireless are a lot more important than the ability to download television shows to a smartphone.
What matters to enterprise IT managers is that a wireless installation works to facilitate the purpose of the business. This may mean that the warehouse crew can get pick orders delivered wirelessly or that the shipping department can coordinate the loading of trucks. But it may also mean that the sales staff has access to the latest information on product inventory and pricing, or that the field service force has access to reference information.
Enterprises that plan from the beginning for a wireless environment-or adapt their enterprise to a wireless infrastructure-stand to reap the benefits of being truly flexible and mobile. Companies that let wireless just happen to them because they don't have an identifiable wireless plan will ultimately pay a price in reduced flexibility, higher costs and limited competitiveness.
A corporate strategy
But adapting wireless to the enterprise takes more than getting the company managers a few cell phones. It means approaching wireless as a corporate strategy in much the way that Hearst Publishing did when it built its new Manhattan headquarters (see tinyurl.com/23e7la3). In this case, Hearst was building a new office, not a factory floor wireless environment, but the company moved to a model that would allow ubiquitous WiFi and cell phone coverage throughout the production environment that matters most to the company: its editorial staff.
Joe Melfi, D-Link's associate director of business solutions marketing, said the critical technology for enterprise wireless is WiFi. "When it [802.11n] was ratified, it was a big deal and companies would spend money on it," Melfi said. "11n is giving better coverage per access point. You get faster throughput and faster traffic, and it won't kill your network."
A key feature of 802.11n that makes it ideal for the enterprise, according to Melfi, is its MIMO (multiple input, multiple output) technology. "The technology is more noise-tolerant," he explained, "and your success in getting and keeping a connection is a lot better. You have dual-band technology, so if you have a lot of noise, you can switch to the other band. You can fall back to lower bit rates and rebroadcast."
Melfi said that MIMO technology is the real key to WiFi's sudden growth in the enterprise. "Now everything is going 11n," he said. "Bar-code readers and inventory systems are all going 11n. On loading docks, when drivers arrive, they just punch their driver number into a wireless device and cargo starts arriving."
There are many applications in the enterprise for this emerging capability, but Harpreet Chadha, senior director of product management for Extreme Networks, is already seeing a few that stand out. "I'm surprised about the amount of video coming to the enterprise-collaboration, distance learning, broadcasts from the CEO," Chadha said. "You need to have more bandwidth for the connections you care about now."
Chadha said that the new reliability and improved bandwidth found in today's wireless environment are lending themselves to some applications that have traditionally been confined to a wired network environment. "You expect that the dashboard on your database will work over a wireless connection," he pointed out.
Wireless technology is also cropping up in other areas now that more bandwidth and greater reliability are available. "Companies are using WiFi and RFID for inventory and warehousing," Chadha said, noting that while both technologies have been around for a while in the warehouse, faster and more reliable communications are making them the norm rather than the exception. He also noted that some new applications, such as locating people, are making an appearance.
Chadha expects to see even more growth as wired and wireless networks become more integrated. Right now, he said, security and management are still separate on those networks, but he expects to see an integrated approach in the near future. "When this gets tied together, you can do it all at the access switch," he said. "Then I can think of moving my critical applications to my wireless users as well as my wired users.