The speed of wireless networking and a fall in the cost of wireless equipment are finally making wireless networks a practical alternative to traditional wired systems. The ability to quickly transmit data securely and reliably, without the need for physical wires, will allow users to realize tremendous freedom and mobility. Read on for a brief introduction to wireless LANs that can help you decide whether or not it’s time for your organization to go wireless.

Getting connected
Wireless LANs work basically the same way that traditional wired networks do, except instead of wire or fiber cabling, they use radio waves to link workstations, servers, and other devices. Each device (workstation, server, printer, and so on) is equipped with a radio transceiver (wireless network card) that connects it to the network. This transceiver then accesses the network through a stationary access point.

An access point is a wireless hub that connects devices to the network. While access points come in a variety of shapes and sizes, their general functionality is the same. Each access point propagates an area of coverage called a “cell.” The typical network will have multiple access points with overlapping cells.

Multiple access points
Having multiple access points is an essential strategy when deploying a wireless network. Multiple access points allow cells to overlap and permit users to move between coverage areas without experiencing a break in their network connection. Multiple access points also provide load balancing, also known as load sharing. With the smart technology of today’s wireless hubs, network traffic can be balanced between access points, thus maintaining a high level of performance. In addition, strategically placing the access points throughout a location lets users “roam” between cells.

Staying secure
One concern about wireless technology is how secure it really is. The IEEE 802.11 standard, which specifies minimum requirements for wireless LAN equipment, clearly addresses this issue. The standard includes information on the Wired Equivalent Privacy Algorithm (WEP). This security measure encrypts the data during transmission. In addition, configuration of the wireless network can use current VPN technologies for security.
If you’d like more information about wireless technology and wireless vendors, check out these links:Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance (WECA)Wireless LAN Association (WLANA)Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc. (IEEE)The IEEE 802.11 Wireless Standard
Wireless benefits
Wireless technology provides many benefits for both end users and information technology professionals. Mobility, flexibility, and a low cost of ownership are the driving forces of wireless networking. Wireless users are free to roam around without the limitation of having their computer strapped to a wall jack. Wireless networks are also extremely flexible. A wide variety of devices, including handheld PCs, PC Based Programmable Logic Controls (PLCs), and Point of Sale Terminals, are available for connection to a wireless network. The biggest advantage of wireless networking, however, is the low cost of ownership.

The cost of implementing and maintaining wireless technology depends directly on the structure of the wireless network. For example, three buildings 3,000 feet apart might require a minimum of three access points. Access points range anywhere from $1,000 to $2,000 apiece. These numbers might seem a little on the pricey side. This is inexpensive, however, considering what a T1 line between the buildings would cost. In addition, wireless networking materials are mobile. Wiring a building is like throwing money away. Once the cable is run, it’s there for life. If a company later moves, its investment is shot. With a wireless network, your organization’s investment can travel with your organization.

While the initial investment in wireless is a little more expensive than a traditional wired network, the real cost savings are derived from other aspects of the implementation. The cost of installing and maintaining a wireless LAN, for example, is lower than the cost of a traditional wired LAN, for several reasons. First, wireless eliminates the cost of wiring products and labor. The nightmare of maintaining a wired network is also greatly reduced. Moves, additions, and changes are all simplified in a wireless network. The administration overhead associated with these activities is reduced as well. The result is greater availability for information technology personnel to service critical problems or projects.

Other benefits of going wireless
Another benefit of wireless technology is that users can easily adapt to it. The easier technology is for users to utilize, the less work for the IT professional. Wireless networks operate in a “transparent” mode to the users. To them, the only difference between wired and wireless networks is the wire.

Because wireless networks are very flexible, they also actually help make a network engineer’s job easier. For example, in a typical week, a network engineer might spend hours dealing with wiring issues such as pulling cable, creating patch cables, or searching for a faulty wall jack. A wireless network eliminates many of the time-consuming problems of typical wired networks.

Wireless LANs are also flexible enough to be used in a variety of work environments. For example, nurses working in an ER can be alerted to crucial lab results. Sales managers can plan business strategies based on real-time results. Empty office space can be converted into training rooms or temporary work areas without the hassle of wiring. Organizations constantly on the move (such as catastrophe management agencies, project managers, consulting companies, and so on) can deploy portable wireless LANs when they travel.

Ready to cut the cable?
That wraps up this overview of wireless LANs and some of the benefits that going wireless offers. Now let’s hear from you. Are you willing to trust your network infrastructure to a wireless network? Is your organization currently using or considering wireless technology? Do you think wireless technology will eventually replace most traditional wired networks? Share your thoughts and opinions with your fellow TechRepublic members. Post a comment below or send us an e-mail and let us know what you think.