Understanding the different wireless LAN choices

Several wireless technologies have now emerged. Which ones will be hits? Which ones should you pass on? Kyle Harmon takes a close look at the wireless technologies available today.

Wireless networking is quickly infiltrating mainstream networking, as companies like Intel, 3Com, and Apple have released a wide range of new wireless technologies. Wireless networking has now become a cost-efficient alternative to traditional wired technologies. In this article, we’re going to examine the various technologies, protocols, and standards that have emerged.

Benefits and shortcomings of wireless
The most obvious benefit of wireless networking is that you save the costs and inconveniences of running cabling. Any location where it would be impractical or impossible to run wire can be connected to the corporate network and the Internet by using wireless network devices. Also, those individuals who use laptops can carry their machines almost anywhere in the office, within 150 feet of a wireless hub, and remain connected to the network. Imagine being able to take a laptop from your desk to a meeting room and remain connected to the corporate LAN without being bound by wires in any way.

As with any technology, wireless also has its share of drawbacks. Most of the wireless devices today operate on 2.4-GHz radio bands, which are also used by cordless phones and just about every microwave oven made to date, meaning wireless can be subject to interference. This is usually not a problem, as phones and wireless networking cards generally search for a channel not in use, but it is something to keep in mind if you operate a large number of these devices.

In the same sense, as the available band range is limited in size, only a small number of devices can operate in a wireless network at once. In most cases, vendors recommend that no more than 100 clients should access the wireless network at once.

Additionally, wireless networking can communicate only over small distances, generally from 100 to 150 feet in very obstructive circumstances and up to 1,500 feet in wide-open areas. At longer distances, the signal strength can be sporadic at best, working only when conditions are perfect.

Perhaps one of the greatest concerns with wireless networking is security. Everything transferred over wireless is transmitted over open airwaves. Individuals with the proper equipment can intercept the data that is transferred over your wireless network. Fortunately, most wireless solutions offer 40-, 64-, and 128-bit encryption to protect your sensitive information.

When should wireless networking be used?
In regard to desktop computers, I believe wireless networking should only be used in these two instances:
  • In a small-office environment, where it may be easier (and cheaper) to install a wireless networking infrastructure
  • In a large building or one where it’s impractical (and very expensive) to install a wire-based infrastructure

On laptops, I believe that unless you rarely move around (which seems unlikely), a wireless network is essential. Laptops are designed to be portable, and wireless LANs take that design to a higher level. Wireless devices make a laptop truly portable within an organization, where individuals can remain connected while in meetings or in a coworker’s office sharing ideas.

What kind of wireless technologies are available?
Two major forms of wireless networking are available: Home RF and the widely supported 802.11b (also now called Wireless Fidelity or WiFi).

Currently, Intel is heavily pushing its Home RF-based Anypoint product. Unfortunately, this technology pales in comparison to the 802.11b standard. The Anypoint device allows transfer speeds of up to 1.6 Mbps and ranges of up to 150 feet. Other vendors are also offering Home RF solutions, most of which offer similar capabilities.

However, the most prevalent technology available today is 802.11b. This is an open standard, and many manufacturers, including Linksys, Apple, SMC, and 3Com, are developing interoperable wireless solutions based on the technology.

Speeds for 802.11b can range from 1 to 11 Mbps, depending on the signal strength and link quality. The working distance allowed between computers ranges from 150 feet to 1,500 feet, depending on the surrounding environment. Access points can also be linked together, allowing extended distance while requiring only one access point to be linked to the wired network.

What’s the best hardware?
Last year, wireless networking devices were expensive and often hard to come by. Following a reduction in price, wireless cards and access points have become more readily available and can now often be found in local computer stores.

Linksys, D-Link, SMC, and other wireless vendors manufacture simple access points. These access points usually plug into a configured network and begin to function immediately. Some of these devices use Web- and software-based configuration for advanced networking needs and simple security options. Most vendors that provide access points also manufacture products that act as routers and gateways. These products generally combine the functions of both the wireless access points and low-end cable/DSL routers. The wireless routers provide DHCP and NAT firewall features for the wireless clients. Some of these routers also act as wired switches, working as an all-in-one box for the SOHO environment.

But when it comes to getting your money’s worth in 802.11b networking, Apple Computer takes the cake with its Airport Base Station. This $299 unit provides the function of a wireless access point, a DHCP server, and a NAT firewall. However, the feature that sets the Airport Base Station apart from the rest is the built-in modem, which makes it easy to share nonbroadband connections. Unfortunately, without at least one Mac on the network, the station can be difficult to configure.

What’s next?
The wireless networking solutions that are available today are just the beginning of a growing trend. The 802.11a standard promises greater bandwidth in the near future over different radio bands. As we mentioned, barriers such as security and interference need to be overcome. But there is certainly tremendous potential for the future of these wireless networking technologies.
Are you currently considering the implementation of wireless technologies? Send us an e-mail and tell us about your expectations or post a message below.