Toward the Wireless Office

Early adopters are already unwiring their enterprises. What will it take to make the dream of an all-wireless office a reality?
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If you suggested a few years ago that it would be a good idea to network an office using only wireless technology, IT professionals would have laughed in your face.

Wireless was unreliable, insecure, unmanageable, couldn’t easily provide the capacity or bandwidth needed--a bad idea all round. Besides, why would you want to?

Today, the notion of a wireless office--where most, if not all access, including voice, is over a Wi-Fi network--has hardly taken the world by storm. But, it is beginning to garner interest and credibility.

The upside of going wireless

The benefits, including cost savings, productivity boosts, and the ability to deploy applications, such as locationing and tracking that are only possible with wireless, are becoming more difficult to dismiss, if not always easy to quantify.

The downside trade-offs meanwhile have largely disappeared, even if the perception persists among some IT professionals of Wi-Fi as unreliable, unsecured, etc.

There have been a few major deployments. Osaka Gas, the third largest utility in Japan, equipped about 6,000 employees with dual-mode 3G/Wi-Fi phones that work over the NTT DoCoMo cellular network as well as on the company’s Wi-Fi network. Virtually all network access by employees is wireless. 

Meru Networks, which supplied the infrastructure equipment, claims the Japanese company is the largest all-wireless enterprise in the world, with 800 access points and 72 of Meru’s MC1000 network controllers.

The key to the Osaka Gas deployment--and arguably a defining characteristic of the wireless office--is the use of wireless VoIP or VoWi-Fi. A case study at Meru's Web site says the VoWi-Fi system will save the company about US$4 million a year (although it doesn’t say exactly how).

The system also makes employees more efficient because they can now answer calls at any time as if they were at their desks, even when they’re in another office. And they have access to business-critical documents anywhere they go, which will help them deliver better customer service.

But, Osaka Gas is very much a pioneer.

“The percentage of companies doing this is definitely in the single digits,” says analyst and consultant Craig Mathias, principal at Farpoint Group and a strong proponent of the wireless office.

Vendors agree.

“It’s in the early-adopter stage,” says Sujai Hajela, vice president and general manager of enterprise WLAN at Motorola Inc. 

CIOs like the concept, Hajela says, and want to ensure that whatever network investments they make today will leave them the option to go all-wireless in future. But, most are not ready to pull the plugs yet.

Thinking ahead

Meru’s Steve Troyer, vice president of product marketing, says that while most of his company’s customers are now deploying pervasive Wi-Fi networks--meaning they provide coverage everywhere in a facility--only “a handful” are following Osaka Gas’s lead and putting voice over Wi-Fi.

That will change, Mathias believes.

“Over the next ten years, we see it getting to the point where 30% to 50% [of companies] will have only wireless at the desktop--no RJ11 [telephone jacks]--and  over time that will creep up asymptotically to 100%. There’ll always some number that aren’t wireless.”

So, what will drive companies to adopt an all-wireless strategy?

The trend to virtual workforces and office “hoteling” is one driver, says Michael Tennefoss, head of strategic marketing at Aruba Networks, Inc. More and more employees work part of the time at home or at client or satellite sites, and then come to a central office where they may not have a permanent workstation.

An all-wireless network makes this kind of arrangement easier to manage, especially one that uses a unified security approach based on user identity rather than method of access. Users with laptops can easily log in to the corporate network wherever they go, whether over the WLAN, corporate WAN, or a public network.

And then there is simply the trend to increased intra-office mobility. Many workers today spend most of their time away from their assigned offices, in client and team meetings, co-workers’ offices, labs, and on factory floors.

Tennefoss cites a survey of Microsoft employees--admittedly not your average workforce--in which 93% said they use their computers outside their own offices some of the time. Seventy percent said they spend at least a quarter of the work day wirelessly, 30% of them more than six hours a day--and 72% said they could work without any wires at all.

Microsoft employees also say the freedom of wireless makes them more efficient, with 70% claiming they save at least five hours a week as a result.

Mathias believes there are other, more difficult-to-prove, but possibly more important, productivity benefits from being able to respond “then and there,” wherever you are, to communications by e-mail, IM, or phone.

“You might be able to beat the competition just on your ability to react more quickly,” he says.

Mobile employees enabled by WLANs won’t always or necessarily respond quickly, he concedes, but with appropriate training and leadership, wireless can help create a culture of quick response and non-procrastination.

“It’s difficult to measure,” Mathias says. “There have been no really good studies to this point, but over time, I think you’ll see that people who have access to mobile information are much more productive than those who do not.”

The cost savings wireless can deliver are supposedly easier to quantify--although none of the vendors we talked to could deliver actual hard-and-fast case-study evidence.

But, Tennefoss says more and more of his customers are turning to wireless now to reduce the impact on the IT department of constant moves, adds, and changes within the office—which, of course, translates to costs. With wireless and identity-based network security, that impact is virtually zero, he says.

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