Enterprise Wi-Fi needs change in mindset

Greater adoption of mobile devices spurs enterprise interest in providing pervasive Wi-Fi, says Xirrus CEO, but businesses still prefer to "over-provision" for wired networks and end up having "thin" wireless coverage.
Written by Tyler Thia, Contributor

SINGAPORE--The rise of mobile devices including tablets has driven enterprises to go the Wi-Fi way and look at providing pervasive Internet access that extends beyond just conference rooms.

Xirrus CEO Dirk Gates said: "There's been a lot of interest in moving enterprise applications to those tablets and not to mention smartphones that are being used in the enterprise. We're seeing interest in a robust, more pervasive Wi-Fi deployment, without dragging a ton of cable [to deliver Internet access]."

In an interview with ZDNet Asia during his visit here this week as part of a seven-city Asia trip, Gates explained that industries including logistics, transportation, education and healthcare are actively looking at deploying good wireless connections without incurring the high cost of implementing extensive cabling.

"There's no way to wire the entire university or school. A lot of devices in the hospital are already Wi-Fi enabled so we're definitely seeing more interest in using the 'cell tower' approach [to deploy wireless connectivity]," he said.

The cell tower approach, which was adopted by the mobile phone industry a decade ago, remains the most efficient base-station model, he noted. In this approach, multiple radio devices are hung in a circular fashion, resulting in a 70 to 80 percent reduction in device requirement for the deployment of wireless LANs.

It is also scalable where more capacity can be added, without the need to "hang up more radios", he said.

Wi-Fi no longer just 'good to have'
Gates revealed that some wireless networking vendors deploy basic WLAN equipment, install "a fancy controller software" in the backend and market it as an enterprise-class implementation. "It doesn't cut it," he said, adding that these devices cannot transmit data fast enough and companies may end up spending more than its allocated budget to improve the network performance.

He noted that this situation is the result of a higher focus on and "over-provisioning" of Ethernet connection, where Wi-Fi connectivity, for most enterprises, is often deemed to be just a "good-to-have" service.

"In the wired world, the attitude is to 'over-provision'. If the idea is to pull one Ethernet cable [in a location], you will often end up with two," he added. "Each employee today has two or three Ethernet tabs."

"Wireless, on the other hand, is always under-provisioned. [For most companies], it's always been about trying to figure out the fewest number of access points I can get away with to claim [there is] wireless coverage. So, you end up with thin coverage with very low capacity in your networks."

Hence, Gates noted that a fundamental shift in mindset will be required if companies want to prepare for the next phase of connection deployment and cater to the growing adoption of mobile devices.

They should do so by starting to "over-provision" wireless access points, and setting up device structures that allow for greater capacity and scalability, he suggested.

When quizzed on the security aspects of Wi-Fi connections, he noted that with the current WPA2 and encryption technology, it is definitely more secure using Wi-Fi than a wired connection as the latter, for most enterprises, does not require login for access.

"If I'm a hacker, I'd be looking at the printer instead of trying to log onto a wireless connection as it is definitely much easier to just hook up my laptop [to a company's LAN] and gain access to the company's host server," he explained.

Ethernet reversal of fortunes
An entrepreneur himself, Gates has been "round the block twice" where Xirrus is the second company he founded, after Xircom.

Confident of the company's prospects, he said the Wi-Fi business will eventually overtake Ethernet switching in five years.

"Cisco [Systems] made the announcement a month ago that their Ethernet switching revenue has declined for the first time. While there's a lot of speculation about competition, the more fundamental issue is that [Ethernet switching] will give way to wireless [platform]," he said.

He expects this "reversal of fortune" to happen within five years. However, the combined global market value then will be less than the current value of US$22 billion, where Wi-Fi accounts for US$2 billion and Ethernet switching US$20 billion. Wi-Fi revenue, though, is currently clocking rapid growth of 35 percent per year, he said.

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