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Are you ready for the next wireless revolution?

By Ian Kilpatrick, chairman Wick Hill Group, specialists in secure IP infrastructure solutions.

The logistics industry has been a long term user of wireless, which is well distributed throughout the supply chain. However, the introduction of new wireless standards (802.11ac and 802.11ad, alongside the huge growth in smartphones, tablets and BYOD, are set to rapidly increase wireless use in business. This has significant cost and management implications for distribution companies, who will have to look carefully at how their wireless networks will adapt and grow in this rapidly changing scenario.

2013 and beyond will see continuing growth in wireless networks, with a move in many organisations to wireless actually replacing wired networks. This move, which already has many early adopters, will create a sea change in working practises and operational management.

The new wireless standard 802.11ac is on track to be ratified in the second half of 2013 and will provide WLAN throughput of at least 1Gbps, first generation, and up to 7Gbps in the future. 802.11ad, with multi Gbps throughput, is likely to be ratified in 2014.

However, manufacturers are already delivering consumer devices designed to both these standards. Home users are already getting the improved performance and user experience that these standards will deliver and are increasingly bringing these expectations into the office.

Currently, in many companies within the supply chain, wireless is not of the same standard as wired. Most of today’s wireless implementations provide limited, rather than total coverage, with cold spots, performance limitations and access limitations. This contrasts unfavourably with the mobile environment increasingly experienced elsewhere.

The situation is not sustainable in the medium term. Mobility is an unstoppable wave. Smartphone and tablet use are soaring; desktop sales are declining, below laptop sales; 4G will drive further performance expectations; and organisations need the increased productivity that mobile devices can bring
The move to wireless raises many challenges and opportunities for the storage, handling and distribution industry. Security is a significant challenge, raising a number of issues to be addressed, such as network access control, ID management, mobile device management, device remediation, intrusion prevention and management infrastructure. Key to success, in this significantly changed environment, will be deployment pre-planning, risk assessment and determining the policies to apply.

The changes in wireless standards provide a key opportunity for strategic planning. Most wireless deployments have been tactical, with more access points added, often unstructured, to meet increasing user demand or deal with cold spots. Warehouses for example, can throw up plenty of obstacles to wireless, creating cold spots, a problem which typically cannot be resolved just by throwing more access points (and money) at it.

802.11ac will deliver the unfulfilled promise of the previous standard 802.11n, but with a focus on 5GHz rather than 2.4GHz. With 5GHz providing shorter range, but higher throughput, existing access point (AP) based systems will be inadequate for the new requirements. As users increasingly have 5GHz devices, the old 2.4GHz APs will become obsolete. This gives logistics companies a one time opportunity to plan for a future working environment based on wireless, rather than wired LANs.

This is particularly relevant given the challenges that 5GHz and beyond will create for the old AP-based approach to coverage. With 2.4GHz, providing more coverage typically involves adding more APs. However, that has been shown to be increasingly self-limiting because interference between APs reduces coverage, rather than increasing it.

To migrate to 5GHz, will require entirely new APs, new antennas, upgraded or replaced controllers, and new switches or PoE injectors. Similar to 802.11n, there will be multiple versions and phases of 802.11ac, so AP-based distribution organisations will need to budget for ongoing infrastructure upgrading and replacement.

This is a tough challenge, since it involves planning for growth driven by staff’s home experience of high throughput access and app usage, and of course 4G. While the much faster and even shorter range (10m) 802.11ad 60GHz standard is likely to deliver high capacity, short-range cordless (back-up to docking station, etc.) to the wireless office, it can’t be ignored in the planning process.

Already, we have seen unprecedented pressure for ever faster and more pervasive wireless, and with tablets and smartphones supporting the standard from 2013, this pressure will only grow. An increasingly popular alternative to the AP approach (sometimes characterised as ‘breeding’) is the modular array approach.
With this method, an array can hold multiple directionally tuneable APs. Unlike traditional broadcasting, directional focus minimises interference and enables clear control over geo overspill. Additionally, with the array-based approach, the APs can be slot-in cards, so can be easily and inexpensively replaced or upgraded, as traffic usage and capacity evolve. It’s arguably a more cost-effective, efficient and less disruptive solution to growing a wireless network and taking advantage of the benefits that increased wireless will offer. Suppliers such as Xirrus have solutions in this area.

While it is superficially tempting to view this change as an evolution, it clearly isn’t. Over the next five years, alongside the major shifts in mobility and apps, multi-gigabit wireless speeds will radically alter the business environment, particularly for those with the foresight to plan their infrastructure to scale with the changes and the productivity opportunities. Replacing existing access points with the higher performance, higher density throughput of array-based systems is key to successfully benefitting from these changes.

Conclusion
We are at the beginning of a radical shift in the IT world, which will impact companies in storage, handling and distribution. Mobility, BYOD, multi Gbps wireless and 4G are creating an unstoppable wave of change, fundamentally altering the working environment and creating some major challenges and opportunities for security and access.

The key beneficiaries will be those who recognise that this is a sea change and plan accordingly, rather than treat it as an evolutionary change and have to play catch up. Given the repeated historic issues of back-fitting security after deployment, planning and budgeting for security at the beginning are essential for success in this new environment. http://www.wickhill.com or www.twitter.com/wickhill

Ian Kilpatrick is chairman of international value added distributor Wick Hill Group plc, specialists in market development for secure IP infrastructure solutions and convergence. Kilpatrick has been involved with the Group for more than 35 years. Wick Hill supplies organisations from enterprises to SMEs, through an extensive value-added network of accredited VARs.

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