Demystifying a Wireless Network

In Part 1, we looked the basic components of a network and how they all fit together. In this article, we examine wireless networking, and how it can provide flexibility while cutting costs.
Posted February 28, 2008

Joseph Moran

Joseph Moran

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In Part 1 of our small-business networking story, we talked about the various parts that comprise a basic network. Now it's time to discuss a wireless network (or WLAN, for Wireless Local Area Network), which serves the same purpose as a wired one: to link a group of computers. Because a wireless doesn’t require costly wiring, the main benefit is that it's generally easier, faster and cheaper to set up.

By comparison, creating a network by pulling wires throughout the walls and ceilings of an office can be labor-intensive and thus quite expensive. But even when you have a wired network already in place, a wireless network can be a cost-effective way to expand or augment it. In fact, there’s really no such thing as purely wireless network, because most link back to a wired network at some point.

Another major benefit of a wireless network is that it can provide employees with mobility around the office. It lets workers equipped with notebooks or handhelds a wireless network allows to stay connected from wherever they happen to be-- or even while moving around -- rather than being tethered to the network jack on an office or cubicle wall.

The Basics
Wireless networks operate using RF, or radio frequency, technology. When you tune your car stereo to your favorite oldies station, the stereo receives the signal that station transmits. Wireless networks work according to a similar principle, so one way to think of computers on a wireless network is as a group of radio stations in close proximity transmitting digital data rather than audio, and where every “station” is able to receive as well as transmit. 

The cornerstone of a wireless network is a device known as an access point (or AP for short). The primary job of an access point is to broadcast a wireless signal that computers can detect and “tune” into. As we mentioned earlier, wireless networks are usually connected to wired ones, so an access point also often serves as a link to the resources available on the a wired network, such as an organization’s Internet connection.

In order to connect to an access point and join a wireless network, computers must be equipped with their own radios, also known as wireless network adapters. These are often built right into the computer-- especially notebooks or other portables—but just about any computer can be made wireless-capable through the use of an add-on adapter plugged into an empty expansion slot, USB port, or in the case of notebooks, a PC Card slot.

Wireless Technology Standards
Because there are multiple technology standards for wireless networking, it pays to do your homework before buying any equipment.

The first widely used wireless networking technology, known as 802.11b (more commonly called W-Fi), first debuted almost a decade ago but is still in use. In 2003, a follow-on version called 802.11g appeared offering greater performance (that is, speed and range -- more on these in a moment) and which remains today’s most common wireless networking technology.

Another improved standard called 802.11n is currently under development and is scheduled to be complete in 2009. But even though the 802.11n standard has yet to be finalized, you can still buy products based on the “draft” 802.11n standard, which you will be able to upgrade later to the final standard.

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