Trapeze Networks new chief executive officer, Jim Vogt, thinks a product called Ringmaster is one of his prize assets. Id agree. I think he ought to give it away.
Well, if youre the typical business user in the United States, you may well not be an international jet-setter, and you will not know how awful it is to try to cover the German IT trade fair, CeBIT, in Hannover. And you may treasure your time away from the office as an opportunity to avoid the Internet. But for those who have to travel a lot, each hotel brings a new nightmare of trying to get online and get e-mail.
Hence, of course, the runaway success of BlackBerry handhelds, but also the growing sense among hotel managers that providing wireless broadband is a service youre better off failing to offer.
Key to the new, corporate awareness of wireless, especially in Europe, is the realization that it aint easy. And key to the pitch Id make, if I were Trapeze, is that Ringmaster is not just a site survey tool, but also a network admin tool.
At a recent seminar in Barcelona, Spain, I found myself dialing a local, “free” Internet provider, Wannadoo. The password was “gratis,” which was a joke. The Meridien hotel is a top-rank hotel that charges top-rank prices for outgoing phone calls, and Wannadoo is a premium phone number. At the end of a week, my bill ran to more zeros than the typical box score of the 1962 New York Mets. I was, as they say, seriously vexed.
But at the same time, my experiences with hotels that do provide wireless broadband suggest that their managers are likely to wish they had not tried.
Broadband in hotels ought to be so darn simple: an RJ socket on the table and a flat fee on the bill! And wireless should be just as simple: Register your room number, and the system thereafter recognizes your MAC address and bills you in the same way. Well, so it is— simple, that is, but youll find that wireless coverage depends very much on where you sit.
In one memorable hotel, I found I could get a good WLAN signal in the bar, but otherwise nowhere at all. In another, the huge atrium, all 25 floors, had an excellent signal, but when you went into your room, the solid, metal doors were more than equal to the task of screening it out. And of course, every user who came equipped with wireless gear expected it to work. And when it didnt, the business center manager had to work overtime and the complaints went up.
Pleasanton, Calif.-based Trapeze is an exciting startup that is playing catch-up in a market where Airespace Inc. has a noticeable lead, making it possible for IT managers to install wireless without having to ask for two new IT staffers. Both companies are strutting their stuff in Hannover this week, announcing new customers, new technologies and new alliances.
Fortunately, enough has been written about the technology involved in these WLAN management systems that I dont have to try to convince you of the virtues of one or the other provider. Suffice it to say that there are lots of ways to skin this particular cat, and each has its devotees and customers prepared to sing its praises, or equally, detractors prepared to do it down.
: U.S. vs. Europe”> What interested me was the way markets in the United States and Europe seem to differ. And one of the key factors, it seems, is security.
If were to believe Vogt and Trapeze, Europe is well ahead of the United States in security awareness. His analysis is that European wireless– coming late to the game– is able to take a more detached overview of the problems and “get it right” without having to patch together a host of old, pioneering systems. It seems fair to admit that rivals at Airespace think this is simply not right, and that the American security market is flourishing faster than its European counterpart. I suspect the answer may be just a question of which company has done better in which territory, but also a question of which technology is going to triumph in the test of time.
And thats where Ringmaster comes in.
Airespace of San Jose, Calif., has a technology that dynamically manages radio-signal strength “in real time”; Trapeze is getting close, with a system that can be adjusted but needs IT intervention. What both recognize is that the days when a network was a single-access point in each room, with the occasional client wandering in, are over.
Were now in the age of wireless overload. A room with a theoretical capacity of supporting 10 users fills up with human beings who very effectively block the signal, making a stronger signal needed. A room that has no problem feeding 10 people with broadband can collapse into chaos with 100 clients all generating wireless noise. And at CeBIT, youll have a room that can accommodate a couple of thousand humans and their wireless gear, and youll be lucky getting modem-speed connections from something that should carry Ethernet-speed data.
Last year, Ekahau showed just how bad it was. If I were a hotel manager, the last thing Id want to do would be to try to set up such a service for my guests. Especially demanding ones who would tell their colleagues never to come back.
Airespace likes to tell its customers that it has “a wireless engineer free inside every access point” with its centrally managed system. Thats what the IT manager needs: someone to do the work that current staff levels simply make impossible. You cant hire new bodies to do it; youd better find some way of making it simple to install.
And what I like about Ringmaster is that the same package you use to survey the site is the software you use to manage it. It may not be the best site survey tool (or again, it might be!), but something like that has to be the way to talk people who are not themselves wireless experts or IT experts, but who are going to be the people who are expected to make it work when, unexpectedly, it all goes pear-shaped.
Whats worse than no WiFi? WiFi thats there but doesnt work properly. Too much more of that, and the industry goes into reverse. Dont think it cant happen!