Small businesses warming to wireless LANs

The 802.11b may never become a household name, but it's not just for the enterprise anymore, either.

As costs come down and ease of use improves, small businesses are discovering they can bypass wired Ethernet LANs, as well as extend network connectivity to the home, client sites and public spaces such as airports and hotels. And vendors are responding. Having gained a strong foothold in the enterprise -- with a 20% penetration today -- 802.11b vendors are now turning their attention to the small office market.

It's understandable that vendors such as 3Com, Cisco and Agere Systems (formerly Lucent Microelectronics Group) didn't see the small office as easy pickings right away. Wireless connotes mobility. Why would 10 people who spend all day in a single office need mobility? But in the small office, it's not the individual workers who are mobile, but the office itself.

"Small offices tend to be dynamic as far as size and location," says Ron Seide, product line manager for Cisco's Wireless Networking business unit. "They're small but growing and tend to move around a lot. With a wireless LAN infrastructure, when the office moves, the infrastructure can be loaded up, taken to the next location, then rapidly redeployed, maintaining connectivity and the customer's investment."

While Gartner predicts 802.11b penetration in the corporate LAN will reach 50% by the end of next year, Gartner analyst Mostafa Maarouf sees 802.11b technology heading into the smaller markets quickly. Today, Maarouf says, 20% of notebook PCs are sold into small offices of up to 19 people. "That's low, but not insignificant," he adds. What's more, by 2005, Gartner predicts that 95% of notebook PCs will be 802.11b-enabled.

"Compared to wired Ethernet, which is expensive when you include the wiring, 802.11b is a pretty compelling alternative for eight or 10 people," Maarouf says.

In shopping for 802.11b hardware, ease of use and price are most important for the small office. You'll also want to consider security and management features, and performance. While you won't get the throughput speeds of wired Ethernet, 802.11b's 11M bit/sec rated speed (about 6M bit/sec in actuality) is plenty of pipe for a 10-person office connected via DSL or analog modem.

Do you want a broadband gateway, an access point or a base station? A broadband gateway typically is a router with multiple Ethernet ports that connects to your DSL modem or may have the modem integrated within. It will include IP management, VPN pass-through, Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol server and other network features. In contrast, an access point connects to the DSL modem or hub via Ethernet wiring (Category 5 cable) and allows for roaming, which is typically overkill for the small office. More appropriate is a base station or residential (or broadband) gateway. A base station typically supports a 10-person office, but doesn't support roaming. It's substantially less expensive than an access point, as it doesn't require the additional processing power roaming requires.

Access points and base stations include at least one Ethernet port for connecting a DSL or cable modem. You can add an Ethernet hub and connect via wiring a printer, scanner or file server, or use 3Com's Ethernet Client Bridge to bring peripherals onto the network. The 802.11b adapters -- PC Cards, ISA and PCI cards, and Universal Serial Bus devices -- range in price, but because they're interoperable, you can mix brands.

Other questions to ask: What are the vendor's plans for migration to higher speed LANs? Does the product support power over Ethernet, which means you don't have to run power to the access point?

When it comes to configuration software and firmware, all the vendors vying for small office customers tout ease of setup and use. But vendor philosophies vary. For instance, 3Com has stripped many of the enterprise network management capabilities out of its small office product, including SNMP. In contrast, Cisco left the high-end management features in, assuming the company might use a value-added reseller for support. However, those features are layered behind a Web-based interface that was built for nontechnical users.

"Two years ago, we were targeting the CTO or IT professional within the enterprise," says Agere's Alan Scott. "Today we assume it'll be the end user installing the system. So we geared our call center to that type of customer, added lots of documentation and improved the install wizards."

John Hyland, CEO of Morristown Financial Group,located in New Jersey, set up his company's wireless LAN in 1996 using Lucent WaveLAN equipment. A pending move put the company in a bind. "We couldn't live without a network but didn't want to dump the money into wiring when we knew we were moving to a new office in six months," Hyland says.

So when Hyland relocated the group, he simply unplugged the equipment, then plugged it back in at the new building. Today, using a mix of WaveLAN and Orinoco equipment, the company has an access point connected to a hub to share a 1.5M bit/sec DSL connection and two laser printers among 16 employees using a mix of desktops and notebooks.

"It's been more than adequate," Hyland says. "We don't know what we don't know. We're just comparing it to nothing."

This story, "Small businesses warming to wireless LANs" was originally published by Network World.

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