The LAN is Dead. Long Live the All-Wireless Office

Since the birth of the computer age the Local Area Network (LAN) has been the foundation of company networks. Connecting PCs and datacentres using numerous cables has always been a major part of the IT function and of the IT spend. But times are changing: as we move more and more of our business to the cloud, including our mission critical apps, demands for higher bandwidth and mobility are increasing. We’re seeing that LAN providers are talking about bringing fibre to the desktop but is it really better wires we need or should we embrace the wireless workplace?
By Matt McCloskey, Sales Director, eir Business NI

According to Cisco, global WiFi traffic will overtake wired traffic in just three year’s time. This steady and inevitable move towards wireless is changing the face of the ‘office’ forever. With productivity gains, operating cost reductions and enhanced ability to attract and retain top talent, enterprises all over the world are waking up to wireless – latest IDC research shows the enterprise WLAN market growing 11.5% year over year in EMEA. In this future, cubicles, desktop PCs and phones, and the fixed LAN will be phased out as more fluid office layouts, populated by mobile workers using mobile devices and connecting to the network wirelessly, become commonplace.

We need only look at the offices of internet giants Google, Facebook and Airbnb to see what this ‘office of the future’ will look like: open plan floor layout, with hubs dotted around to establish spots where staff can gather to discuss projects, or brainstorm, all wirelessly connected by strategically placed Wi-Fi access points that ensure connectivity wherever employees are in the building.

While wireless networks (WLANs) have struggled in the past with reliability, security and performance demands, significant progress has been made that is establishing Wi-Fi as a viable alternative to the fixed LAN.

• Wireless will be faster than cable by 2019: A new Wi-Fi standard, 802.11ac, is a turbo-charged upgrade to the current standard 802.11n, offering speeds of up to 12 times faster and of more than 7gbps. Supporting access points boast the power and reliability to deal with a variety of office scenarios. It’s now a fact that wireless is as fast as cable and by 2019, when the next version of WiFi protocol standards are set to be ratified, WiFi will reach speeds more than 10gbps. So why pay to wire your office with soon-to-be-redundant fibre-to-the-desktop when WiFi is as good if not better?

• Intelligent Security heralds massive improvements in protecting organisations from internal and external threats: Self-defending networks mean that every device on the network is security-aware and can automatically respond and prevent threats. This intelligence and automation removes the human element from the network and each device can react to relevant data and initiate a response.

• Wireless IP telephony comes with some serious firepower: Combined with WiFi, IP Telephony allows workers to get all the advance features such as shortcode extension dialling, free on-net calls, call transfers and conferencing as they move about the office. However, there are business case considerations – in an all-wireless environment, the issue of power supply is one to be considered as without Power over Ethernet, power injectors are required which is an added cost to be weighed.

The impact of a mobile-first workforce, coupled with all these advanced technologies, means the time has never been better to re-think your office set-up. Here are a few practical things to consider:

1. The design and configuration of your wireless network, including access point placement, will have a significant impact on your network’s performance. Gartner predict that the number of devices in the workplace will treble by 2018 – your wireless network will need to support this by providing multiple access points in the best locations. A radio frequency (RF) site survey is a good starting point and will help you design the most efficient wireless network for your needs.

2. Make use of application usage analytics to check which applications are using the most bandwidth. Typically, applications such as file sharing, online backup, video conferencing and VoIP will consume a high proportion of your bandwidth, as will social media usage or video platforms like YouTube. Application traffic shaping will allow prioritisation of certain applications by enforcing traffic policies at access points. This allows you to manage the bandwidth being consumed by de-prioritising non-core applications or non-business activities and ensuring that critical applications are always given priority.

3. Security is a vital element of any wireless network. Data travelling on the network should be encrypted and all WLAN users authenticated with strong encryption such as WPA and WPA2. Changing the default name of your network can make it more difficult for hackers to find. VLANs or MAC address control lists combined with encryption will restrict user access and secure guest access will allow visitors to connect to the network while your business network is separate and secure.

Rather than being put off by the concerns associated with moving to an all-wireless workplace, find a partner who understands the challenges and can manage the transition for you. At eircom Business Solutions NI, we design your network based on your specific requirements: how many access points do you need, which applications should be prioritised, do you want an all-wireless network or do certain mission critical applications servers need to sit on the fixed network. As well as ensuring your wireless network performance, we can put the correct security protocols in place, including access control, application security and firewalls. And because we monitor your network 24/7, we can identify any anomalies or threats and act on them immediately.

Ignoring the move toward mobility could have serious implications on your ability to grow your business. Simply put, a wireless office facilitates progression and expansion, presenting an agile platform on which to add users, applications and devices at ease and with much lower costs. The new generation of workforce, the Millennials, do not want to be wired to a desk and are heavily influenced by how innovative a company is. Your company’s success could rest on how attractive it is to these hyper-mobile workers.

There’s little doubt that wireless is the future of the workplace. According to Neil Rickard, research vice president at Gartner, there is a shift from wireless-by-exception to wireless-by-default in many enterprises. Where previously only 10% of devices would be connected to the enterprise LAN via Wi-Fi, he predicts that modern enterprises will be connecting 90% of devices via wireless, with only 10% relying on wired connectivity.

There’s an inevitability to the rise in wireless and the decline in the wired LAN. And with so many gains to be made by embracing wireless, it looks like the time has come to lay the wired LAN to rest and welcome the all-wireless workplace with open arms.