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September 2009 | Volume 12 / Number 9
Feature Story

Enterprise WiFi: From ‘Best Effort’ to ‘Mission Critical’

By: Erin E. Harrison

Companies are increasingly deploying voice over WiFi (News - Alert) solutions to improve the flexibility of the workforce and become more mobile. However, sometimes in order to take two steps forward, they may have to take one back first. The challenge for enterprises to become more mobile encompasses not only the available technology, but cost containment and feasibility as well.

The potential increase in workforce productivity from deploying voice solutions over the wireless network notwithstanding, several challenges exist for enterprises to install a seamless solution, according to Chris Kozup (News - Alert), senior manager, Mobility Solutions for Cisco.

“The first thing we continue to see, and which is perhaps is even accelerating, is the breadth of new mobile devices coming into the market – specifically, those that have WiFi connectivity in them. It’s not be limited to the traditional types of devices, such as laptops or phones or scanning handheld devices,” Kozup said. “We really see a whole host of broader endpoints now requiring WiFi connectivity as well – Things like LCD projectors, digital cameras, a host of medical/health care devices, such as infusion pumps, heart monitors, etc., and even vending machines, all with embedded 802.11n. You’re really seeing this broad proliferation of endpoints that are now embracing WiFi as a connectivity means to access network resources.”

Kozup explains that these varied endpoints have more than one implication. For one, “all those devices all are expecting to connect somewhere and I think the implications for the enterprise, specifically, is that we do expect to see continued demand for WiFi access,” which he says will result in broader, more pervasive deployments.

The Future of WiFi and Mobile Convergence (News - Alert)

Looking ahead, Kozup predicts that most enterprises, ranging from small to medium-sized businesses to large corporations, will move toward a “blanket” approach to meet their WiFi needs.

“We do expect this kind proliferation of devices to really continue to drive enterprise customers towards pervasive coverage, really kind of blanketing their facilities, but also we expect them to look at really delivering or embracing WiFi systems that are really much more enterprise class and designed for the feature functionality requirements that just the breadth of these devices – and the subsequent applications that will be running over them – ultimately require. We’re talking about a move from ‘best effort’ to ‘mission critical’ expectations in terms of SLAs.”

Kozup notes that there are many cases where customer needs can be satisfied by technology that exists today, though “seamless mobility” is going to be difficult to actually achieve.

“The industry is still in the early stages in terms of making this a true reality… there are technologies that exist, but, in many cases, the maturity of the technology is not yet there and it will still be a little bit longer before we see full production systems that are capable of fully handling that seamless roaming, or hand-off, between WiFi and cellular.”

Cisco (News - Alert)’s approach is that we are investing in this area and we do believe in this area, but I think a lot of times people get hung up on the concept of seamless hand-off and forget really to look at the user requirements. When you do that you realize that a lot of the technology that is very seamless and is in place today solves a solid 80 or so percent of user needs.”

Kozup also sees a movement toward stronger wireless networking solutions.

“I think you’ll see that there’s going to be an evolution towards 11n, as there was from 11b to 11g. I think the dream for a lot of enterprises, the vision, is to go get to the stage where they can get to an all-wireless office to really cut down on the capital expenditure associated with cabling and expenses with access switchports. So, using 11n wireless to get high-capacity wireless, so you still have very fast and low latency networks, high-bandwidth is going to be one of the drivers for people to migrate from 11g or even 11b or 11a, the earlier networks,” he said. “From a VoIP standpoint, the benefit of 11n is that you’ve got a lot of capacity, and that extra capacity allows you to run voice and data simultaneously. That’s a pretty reasonable request from enterprise IT managers. With wireless I feel that there’s a perception that you’re moving a step backwards from wired networking, and being able to give customers the confidence that they’re going to be able to provide good quality of service as well as the untethered experience for their users. That’s they key, and that’s generally what you’ll see 802.11n driving… lots of bandwidth with mobility.”

For many customers, WiFi has really been a ‘best effort’ network, according to Kozup. “It was kind nice to have, as something that they augmented their wired network with. Now, as we move forward, we really expect to see much more of a unification of wired and wireless, where the SLA expectations for wireless start to approach those that are already in place for the wired network.”

Agito Networks’ Chief Marketing Officer and founder Pejman Roshan (News - Alert) contends that WiFi will continue to become more mainstream in the workplace.

“Pretty much what we predicted back in 2005 is starting to come true, which is that smartphones and smart devices are coming standard with WiFi. WiFi is becoming just as commonplace with smartphones as Bluetooth and cameras are [as opposed to three years ago]. I also see awareness around voice over wireless and what these phones are capable of from a solutions standpoint,” Roshan said.

“I see enterprise adoption in general, despite the economic downturn, continuing to increase. We see the Blackberry and the iPhone (News - Alert) as the two dominate handsets, with Blackberry having roughly 55 to 70 percent market share. We see it right on the bubble at six out of 10 opportunities coming in being Blackberry-standardized as the smartphone of choice,” with another 10-20 percent being iPhone-centric.”

Agito’s flagship product – the Roam Anywhere Mobility Router – enables enterprises to extend voice and unified communications to cell phones.

“What’s exciting now is that we’re starting to see enterprises – when you ask them about unified communications or voice communications and mobility – they’re starting to equate those requirements with solutions like ours, which are premises-based, and deploying their own solutions, as opposed to looking at their mobile operators, which had typically been the case for so long. That’s pretty exciting,” Roshan said.

Cost Containment and Control

As is the case with all IT deployments, cost is top of mind for decision makers looking at mobility solutions. However, whether it’s going to be the Agito solution or some other solution, there is going to be that component that glues IP telephony and unified communications together with the networking aspects of voice over wireless LAN, according to Roshan.

“What they’re starting to recognize is that there are alternatives that they can take advantage of, and that it is possible to get the benefits of mobility cost-effectively. That’s one of the big downsides of mobility – it can be quite expensive. The device itself is going to cost $200-$300 per user, plus the recurring cost of somewhere on the order of $70 to $100 per month per user. So it’s a non-trivial expense when you think about it at the macro level. If I’ve got 1,000 people, this is a million dollars the first two years kind of deployment, it’s not cheap. So being able to take advantage of a solution like Agito, which cuts down on the operational expense by using voice over wireless LAN, by using WiFi, is a huge win for enterprise administrators. The pervasiveness of WiFi throughout the enterprise is what makes that possible.”

Mike Manzo, chief marketing officer of Openet (News - Alert), explains how service providers can gain visibility into and control over their networks and monetize and personalize services, noting that cell phone usage in the enterprise – whether for voice or data – represents a rather significant cost-containment issue.

“In very much the same way that a parent wants some sort of parental control solution to govern access to services that are undesirable or the usage of services that result in consumption-based billing, the enterprise wants the same type of thing. The correlation here is that the adoption of a dual mode handset that works on a WiFi network as an extension of a PBX (News - Alert) but also operates on a cell phone network simply makes it easier for the majority of the employee base to have a cell phone. It also means managing expenses and governing who can use what services and what the enterprise is paying for becomes that much trickier,” Manzo said. “So, what we do in very much the same way that our policy and charging products support governance by parental controls of the usage of services by time of day or physical location when the caller or usage is occurring or by monitor of usage, we can do the same thing for an enterprise.”

More business models, services and applications are being deployed more quickly from more partners, therefore, service providers must ensure they are able to monetize those services and control access to and allocation of network resources, he explains.

“Any means to proactively control and ensure that the size of that bill stays within budgeted limits is a value-add. I think relative to the cell phone portion of the usage on a dual phone handset – meaning any charges that roll across the operator bill – we have technology that allows the ability to control that consumption by monetary restrictions or by any other metric, it could be number of minutes or amount of data – but we can govern that down to the service and subscriber level very granularly based on explicit rules that are created by the IT administrator or the finance administrator. That is a very nice pairing to any enterprise telephony or any enterprise voice or data application that involves operator or service provider connectivity. IT

Erin E. Harrison is Senior Editor of Technology Marketing Corporation.

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