If I had a dollar for every time I was asked what I think would be the next big thing in IT, I think I would be a very wealthy person. For some time now one of my main hunches has been wireless technology. Much of this is associated with the frustration I have as a mobile worker trying to get on to networks in different locations. IDC research shows that this is likely to be a growing problem. It predicts that there will be more than 55 million mobile and remote workers in the US economy by the end of 2004. The area of wireless LANs is testimony to the fact that technical functionality is still at the heart of many user dilemmas with technology. Among other things, I have come across debates on when the IEEE standard 802.11a would replace 802.11b — 802.11a’s potential throughput is greater. Then again, should CIOs wait till 802.11g appears? For someone without a mechanical bone in his body it seemed as if the “great white shark” of technology had reappeared to terrorise the industry again.
Many of these debates centre on the challenge of throughput. One of the areas wireless LANs must address if they are to succeed is comparable performance to fixed-wire LANs. Currently they are significantly slower. Itinerant users trying to download graphically rich files from the internet will soon lose patience with wireless LAN installations if this issue is not addressed.Like most things in IT, performance relates strongly to price. A wireless LAN requires a PC card attached to the remote computer. This calls into an access point device connected to the fixed-wire network switch or hub. The more expensive equipment tends to be better at eliminating potential interference so that greater data throughput rates can be achieved. This shielding can also offer greater security against unwanted intrusions.
Until now, security has been a major black mark against wireless LANs. Since they use air as the medium for transmission they lack the physical containment of a traditional network. In fact, a new phenomenon has emerged in the IT industry called war driving. This entails hackers cruising around cities trying to locate established wireless LANs where they can bludge free internet communications. This phenomenon has been compounded by the fact that unofficial wireless LANs can easily be established in an office. These then act as an Achilles heel to undermine the overall IT security in most organisations.
While some encryption functionality has been established, it is not foolproof. Nevertheless, research firm Gartner recommends it be deployed — it sees encryption adding a level of complexity to deter the casual hacker. Gartner also advises that a regular audit should be conducted to try to spotlight unofficial wireless LAN access points. However, Gartner’s main advice is to place all access points behind a firewall so unregistered users can be identified and eliminated.
New Zealand CIOs are clearly interested in the versatility of wireless LANs. This probably reflects the fact that they see them as a viable solution to a need for flexibility in moulding an organisation to rapidly changing business circumstances. Between the 2001 and 2002 IDC Forecast for Management surveys there was a 118% growth in the number of Kiwi respondents reporting they had implemented a wireless LAN. Moreover, by the end of 2003, 30% of local CIOs predicted they would be using the functionality — a 155% rise over existing user figures. Perhaps this indicates that wireless LANs may very well be the next big thing in the IT industry.
Peter Hind is a consultant for IDC and assists the Australian Computer Society in policy developments. He also heads the InTEP CIO gatherings in New Zealand and Australia. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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