I recently wrote about the paperless office and the post-e-mail era, two arguably worthwhile goals that share the fact that they’re nowhere close to reality except in a few small
quirky progressive shops. The next myth I’d like to tackle is the wireless office: The dream of workers everywhere, but one we’ll have to wait on a bit before truly waking up to it.
The benefits of this supposed wireless wonderland, fueled by .11n and powered by pixie dust, is ease, accessibility and even cost savings. Imagine, users can just pony up to any office corral they want, pop onto the Wi-Fi, and even re-group with different colleagues with ease. No need to send an IT tech to reconfigure or troubleshoot their Ethernet jack, they just hop onto the same wireless connection no matter where they are. Those IT calls add up, and there’s a is a real cost. Several IT professionals estimated that each desk move runs a couple hundred dollars just in the time it takes to set the user up for access to the Internet and corporate network.
And the dream is nothing new: A few weeks after I started working at SearchNetworking.com in 2007, I was getting pitches about it. A quick search through my e-mail turned up tens of thousands of e-mails for “all wireless office,” from PR flacks, newsletters and mailing lists.
And flacks still tell me regularly: This is the time for the all-wireless office.
But the reality is, just like the paperless office and the e-mail-less office, we’ve got a long hard road ahead.
Take one of the top Google results for the topic, Matt Hamblen’s “All-wireless office launches for 6,000 users at Japanese company“.
Of course, once Matt dove into the details, he found that the office wasn’t really all wireless: A lot of workers still had traditional deskphones, and even the 6,000 wireless phone users had backups in case of a power outage.
But Michael, I hear you argue, that was three years ago. .11n has finally been ratified! Sure, and it’s brought a host of improvements, but in interview after interview with networking professionals, I’ve found that wireless companies routinely over-promise, under-deliver and leave customer after customer holding the bag.
Here’s three areas that give me pause:
Consistency: .11’s MIMO is a whole new ballgame for wireless, and the improvements are great. But they’re also overstated, because just as the greatest maximum reach has been extended, so has its unpredictability. That better-than-broadband throughput only comes through if you’re lucky, unless …
Cost: There’s a reason wireless vendors are so happy to pitch the all-wireless network: You’ll end up saturating your offices with access points. Access points that are “cheap” if they come in under $600. Access points that will have to be super-saturated once you discover that you have users clustering around in a meeting room. So much for saving on those desk moves.
Commodity: When you buy Ethernet cables, you pretty much buy Ethernet cables. And they’re a dirt chip commodity at this point. Forget that when it comes to wireless: You’ll have to pick a vendor and stick with them for a long, long time, bending over every upgrade cycle for whatever specific product they have to fit your need. And you’ll have to get the whole matching kit and caboodle, too: The controllers, the APs, the security consoles, the software that does your coverage mapping which, by the shows, shows you need even more of those proprietary controllers and APs.
I won’t argue that there’s not a lot of benefit that the ratified 802.11n standard brings, but be careful that your enterprise doesn’t get caught up in the spin.
If you’d like to read more, I highly recommend Lisa Phifer’s three-part series on .11n (registration maybe required), which advocates and explains a mixed network methodology, a compromise that, just like reduced paper offices, makes a lot of sense.