Soon, finding a physical network connection may be nearly impossible at Microsoft's offices. The Redmond, Wash., technology giant is currently in the midst of moving from a traditional infrastructure to a fully wireless network.
Today, "What's the WiFi password?" is a common question to ask when visiting a new office, attending a conference or replying to emails at the local coffee shop. For a fee, it's even possible to stay connected on transcontinental flights.
It speaks not only to the ubiquity of wireless networking, but also to how fully business users and consumers alike have embraced the freedom that comes with not being physically tethered to an Ethernet port.
More "mobile-first" users are expecting that same freedom in the workplace, and Microsoft is responding with a major wireless migration project, according to David Lef, principal network architect at Microsoft IT. Lef's team is responsible for maintaining a wired and wireless network that serves 886 physical locations, 220,000 users, 1.2 million devices, and more than 2,500 applications and businesses processes.
Mirroring the declining state of the PC market, Lef said his company's decision to go all-in on a completely wireless network was motivated by how his users access company resources nowadays.
"Our users don't simply use a workstation at a desk to do their jobs anymore. They're using their phone, their tablet, their laptop and their desktop computer, if they have one," said Lef in a Q&A published in the Microsoft Azure Blog. "It's evolved into a devices ecosystem rather than a single productivity device, and most of those devices support wireless. In fact, most of them support only wireless."
Microsoft also hopes to capitalize on the cost savings of delivering apps and services over the air.
Retiring the company's existing wired infrastructure and shifting to a "wireless-first strategy" is expected to slash the amount of networking equipment required to keep users connected by more than half, Lef said. Wireless equipment also requires less maintenance and support, further driving down the cost of keeping a user network up and running.
Currently, Microsoft is rolling out 802.11ac-compliant gear. The company plans to complete the implementation before ripping out its wired network. In total, the company plans to transition 660 sites over the next 24 months, Lef said.
Of course, wired connectivity isn't completely going away at Microsoft. About 200 locations will remain wired, a number that includes the company's data centers, engineering facilities and other locations where customers and users require a physical connection to the network, said Lef. All told, the company expects that more than 90 percent of its end-user network infrastructure will be pushing packets over wireless signals.
The move isn't without its challenges, Lef admitted. The sheer number of WiFi-enabled devices, drivers and older authentication technologies has been known to cause hiccups, he said. Competing traffic from the internet of things and employee-owned devices is also a concern, prompting Microsoft to closely monitor and manage its available wireless bandwidth.