Wired Versus Wireless Networks: What's Right For You?

When comparing wired networks to wireless ones, it's six of one, half dozen of another. Wired network speeds have increased to the gigabit range, providing more rapid, reliable and secure access to stored data. On the other hand, wireless networks offer flexibility, mobility and faster return on investment (ROI). What's a network planner to do when faced with a purchasing decision?

An increasing number of businesses that already have wired networks in place are installing wireless networks to supplement their existing functionality, according to recent research by market research firm In-Stat, based in Scottsdale, Ariz. More than 75 percent of U.S. businesses currently have at least one mobile data application, and the use of wireless is spreading across multiple applications and all vertical markets. These numbers will only grow as more enterprises supply knowledge workers with notebook and laptop computers, and as wireless technologies continue to mature.

No Decision
Which network is the best option? This is one instance where the best choice may be not making a choice. That's the advice of Michael Spencer, a partner with i2 Partners, a strategic IT consulting firm based in Seattle, Wash. "Each technology has compelling advantages, but neither of them can substitute for the other," he says. "Think of them as complementing each other." (article continues)

Here's a rundown of the relative strengths and weaknesses of each:

  • Speed  When it comes to speed, there's absolutely no contest: Wired networks are in the winner's circle. This is especially clear when you consider the actual throughput of these networks, says Charles Stanton, president of Manhattan Networks, a boutique network consulting firm based in New York City. Although wired networks can now reach the 1-gigabit-per-second range, the actual throughput is about 1,000 megabits. Wireless networks, on the other hand, have 64 megabits-per-second limits, "with horrible throughput," says Stanton. "We're talking about 25 percent, which gives you only 10 megabits compared to 1,000 megabits. There's no comparison."
  • Reliability and robustness Enterprises simply can't afford network downtime. Increasingly, mission-critical, real-time operations -- such as online transactions or factory floor processes -- depend on the network to keep the very business functional. This is in addition to the fact that executives and knowledge workers more than ever require consistent and continuous network access to be productive. Wired networks are the only ones that provide this level of robustness, says Spencer. "Wireline is infinitely more predictable," he says. Furthermore, the further devices are from the access point, the less reliable the service. "Such networks are extremely prone to environmental interference," adds Spencer. "You can have significant problems because of the presence of other devices, or because of walls or other structural barriers." (article continues)

  • Security Given the kinds of sophisticated protection technologies now available for traditional wired networks, it's a "not trivial" feat to tap into someone's cable today, says Stanton. Wireless, however, is inherently less secure, especially since most businesses today still don't encrypt data across internal networks. "Security represents a constant battle for network administrators when it comes to wireless networks," says Spencer.
  • Convenience Here is where wireless technology really shines. It is primarily because of convenience that more and more enterprises are installing wireless networks inside their buildings or throughout their corporate campuses. Employees can easily move around the building, take their laptops into meetings and cafeterias, and otherwise work more flexibly than if they were anchored to desktop computers hardwired to the network.
  • Cost effectiveness  Wireless also provides a speedier ROI because the initial investment is so much less than wired installations, and the payback in improved worker productivity is so immediate. Moreover, wireless is much more economical in older buildings where ripping out and replacing of older infrastructure would otherwise be necessary.

What we're likely to see, according to networking experts, is that even as wired networks will remain the technology of choice for what Stanton calls the "heavy lifting" of a business, wireless penetration will continue to increase. Says Stanton, "Except for very unusual circumstances, we recommend that clients use a wired network as the foundation for their networking needs and layer wireless on top of that. That way you get the best of both worlds."

When WANs Aren't Wide Enough

CIO Magazine's recent tech poll revealed something that may not be surprising to corporate network managers: Spending on networks has eclipsed computer hardware as the top IT budget category. What is surprising is that this isn't due to an increase in the local area networks (LANs) that now run in almost every company office. Even though LANs are beginning to show their age, experts agree the existing technology can still supply plenty of bandwidth and hasn't required much new investment. The budget buster is the corporate WAN, or wide area network.

"Organizations are much more distributed," explains George Hamilton, the director of Yankee Group's enabling technologies enterprise group in Boston, Mass. "They've got a lot of branch offices and mobile users, and there's a big push to make enterprise applications that you would normally be able to use sitting at a desk in an office available to users wherever they are, whether they're at an airport or a hotel or their home PC or in a branch office. So you need to empower the network to be able to support those types of applications."

But while users are more distributed, data centers are becoming more centralized. According to Jim Metzler of Ashton, Metzler & Associates, in Sanibel, Fla., "HP is going from 85 data centers down to six. The state of Texas is going from 31 to two." As a result, data has to travel farther to get to any particular user.

Boosting WAN Capability
If WANs provide a future solution, they also pose a present problem. LANs carry traffic over 10/100Mbps Ethernet cables, says Hamilton, while WANs trudge along at a stodgy 1.544Mbps. Many companies are speeding up those WAN (article continues)

connections by simply adding more pipes, or bandwidth. But increasingly, IT centers are looking toward more sophisticated options, because there will always be demand for additional bandwidth.

"I'm very bullish on the whole network and application optimization space," Metzler says. "There's a variety of products and solutions out there to make the WAN perform better. Or make the applications that run over the WAN perform better."

The two most common techniques for sending less information over the network are:

  • Compression: squeezing the data being transferred to compact size before being sent, then expanding the transmission back to native format at the destination.
  • Differencing: a method by which files that are being sent from one part of the network to another are compared, and only the differences in the files are transmitted. For example, a large database that is updated in India and then sent to the U.S. at the end of the Indian workday isn't transmitted in full -- only the parts of the database that have been updated are sent. The savings in bandwidth are significant.

These solutions are usually deployed via dedicated performance appliances offered by companies such as Cisco Systems, Juniper Solutions and Riverbed Technology.

Critical Data Gets Priority
Another smart investment, Hamilton and Metzler agree, is QoS software. QoS, or Quality of Service, enables network administrators to "see" into the network traffic, to identify what types of data are going where and control what gets network priority. (article continues)

NetQoS is a major provider of software and services in this category. "Our goal in life is to understand how well applications are performing for those remote users. That is really the best measure of how well the infrastructure is delivering applications and gives companies visibility into what is on the network," explains NetQoS VP of Marketing Steve Harriman. "Is VOiP a major consumer of bandwidth? Is SAP? Is it your salesforce automation system? Is it recreational use, which we're seeing increasing amounts of?"

Once the main bandwidth consumers have been determined, a company may decide that infrastructure upgrades are in order. Of course, upgrades are inevitable in any case, and what QoS software can do, says Harriman, is "ensure that mission-critical apps are getting first access to the pipe, ahead of recreational use, for example." A company may have a fairly long priority sequence, and then an "as available" bucket, which may be where recreational traffic gets routed.

Smart Investments Open the Pipes
Although every enterprise has its unique networking challenges, experts agree that increasing capacity, or simply adding more pipes, may be an effective "brute force" solution, but not necessarily a wise investment. Rather, IT professionals should first invest in a QoS product to analyze their network. Only then, based on the resulting insights of how data flows, consider investing in optimization, acceleration and differencing appliances. While more bandwidth will undoubtedly be needed sooner or later, these immediate investments will pay off in both the short and long term.

Managing Mobile Devices

They are the best of tools and the worst of tools. Mobile computing devices can support the workforce out in the field or make your most sensitive company secrets public knowledge. The only way to simultaneously unleash your workforce and rein in company threats is to control the risks.

Many IT departments mistakenly think they will be more efficient if they let employees set up their own remote access. "While some companies provide mobile devices to employees with e-mail services and other mobile applications, such as CRM, many of these devices are brought into the organization by employees who go out and buy them themselves and then find a way to connect to corporate applications," says Stacy Sudan, Research Analyst, Mobile Enterprise Software at IDC in Framingham, Mass. "It is very difficult for the IT department to keep track of and manage all of the devices that are actually connecting to the corporate network."

Another common error: "The wrong way to manage mobile devices is to have different departments handling different categories of mobile devices," says Ken Dulaney, Vice President of Mobile Computing at Gartner in Stamford, Conn. "Look at all devices in a similar way, and apply policies in a consistent manner across the board."  (article continues)

Know What's Connected
Once you know the exact number and type of devices that are tapping into your company system, you can develop a comprehensive mobile management system to tie up loose ends. Or you can choose among a variety of management suites.

"A lot of enterprises struggle today with mobile device management because they are unaware that dedicated mobile device management suites are available," says Ben Gray, Analyst, Infrastructure & Operations at Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass. Gray says tools like Nokia Intellisync Mobile Suite, HP Enterprise Mobility Suite, Motorola Mobility Suite, Altiris Handheld Management Suite and Afaria Management and Security are able to manage multiple device platforms (Windows Mobile, BlackBerry, Symbian and Palm OS) and also enable software distribution and configuration management.

Most companies today rely on Microsoft's Systems Management Server or RIM's BlackBerry Enterprise Server to do software management and distribution within the push e-mail server itself. "Mobile device management suites are really the gold standard today," says Gray. "In the future, traditional endpoint management vendors like Altiris, LanDesk and Microsoft will be adding more robust support for handheld devices."

If the task is too taxing on IT staff, consider outsourcing. "There is a growing market of managed mobility firms that companies can outsource device management to," advises Sandra Palumbo, Program Manager, Enterprise IT and Communications Services at Yankee Group in Boston, Mass. She mentions Movero, IntegratedMobile and even some of the carriers. (article continues)

Be sure to weigh options carefully and diligently compare features before buying a mobile device management suite. This is the one category of vendors where bigger is not always better. "The market for mobile security is a fragmented one with smaller pure-play mobile security ISVs, larger computer security firms and larger mobility companies all competing for a share of the pie," says Sudan.  "Most often, the smaller pure-play ISV's have the most complete security offerings. Some offer suites that encompass everything from mobile anti-virus and mobile firewall/ VPN to remote wipe/lock of the device."

Basic Reminders
Whichever approach you choose, keep security practices current and consistent among the various devices. Make sure basic policies are in place and regularly enforced to restrict unauthorized access by employees as well as company outsiders.

"It is also best to build applications with inherent back-up capabilities so you don't have to rely on personnel to back up files and sensitive data. Most e-mail systems have inherent back-up capabilities, but other apps may not," adds Dulaney.

Once you have a mobile management program in place, there is only one thing left to do. "Start using it," says Dulaney, "And keep using it -- every day."

Transforming IT from Servant to Strategic Partner

When companies start to think about streamlining operations, the IT department is often among the first to be flagged. To survive, IT leaders must demonstrate that their department serves a strategic role in the organization's future. For many IT groups, that's a big change.

Redesigning IT's role starts with reorganizing its priorities. Senior IT leaders must focus on two points: how to make money for the enterprise and how to save money for the enterprise. Those two ends are the means to transform the IT department from a useful servant to a valued strategic partner.

"For the longest time, IT was where the gnarly IT heroes lived," explains Ray Paquet, an analyst with Gartner in Billerica, Mass. "Without so much as a 'by your leave,' they rode in, solved thorny problems and then rode away again."

But that image of the solitary techno-wizard single-handedly saving the day has gone the way of the modem. Today's IT heroes are MVPs who know how to be team players and help the entire enterprise achieve victory.

Be a Profit Prophet
This new wave of IT leaders knows that the entire IT operation must be geared more towards solid overall business successes so that it can be recognized by everyone, as opposed to arcane tech advancements obvious to only a select few.

"We want to buy magic, but technology is not magic," says Paquet. "It's time to realize Houdini died and get on with making decisions based on delivering profit.  Instead of trying to amaze or pacify your customers, begin to think and act like a business partner. Justify everything you do against specific business goals."

The key to success: Focus on business impact rather than technology for technology's sake. (article continues)

Make People Skills a Priority
In the new world, people skills are increasingly important on the priority list. "IT Operations really needs to recalibrate and get back to the human element," advises Yankee Group analyst Laura DiDio in Boston, Mass. "It's imperative to communicate with other people in your organization."

While technological expertise is an acknowledged asset, an environment that spotlights tech talent to the exclusion of other skills can create a department of divas. "If you only hire and organize based on technology concerns, you will end up hearing a lot of 'that's not my problem' and 'that's not my job.' Yet the problems will still exist and IT then becomes expendable in the eyes of higher management," warns Paquet.

There is no technology fix that will solve this very human problem. Instead, people skills should top IT's "most wanted" list.

Claim the Prize
Top among those people skills is communication. When IT doesn't communicate well with the rest of the enterprise, everyone suffers - but IT suffers disproportionately.

"There are tons of examples where IT people drop the ball, lose millions [of dollars] for their enterprises and also lose recognition for what was initially a job very well done," DiDio says.

Conversely, it is common for IT managers to successfully negotiate potent deals for their organization. But because all the extras that were included with the deal were not communicated to the rest of the enterprise, those benefits were never collected. As a result, the organization never realized the significance of the achievement and, says DiDio, "it might as well never have happened."

"The root causes for relationship breakdowns between IT and the business are differing expectations and a lack of understanding of the pressures, impacts and realities of life on the other side of the fence," notes Brian Erickson, managing vice president of the Strategic Technology Solutions Practice at Hitachi Consulting in Dallas, Texas. "In the end, we believe that the closer the IT professionals are to the front-lines of the business, the more effective they can be in identifying and responding to changes." (article continues)

Redesign for Dollars
According to Erickson, there are specific steps that can help you to redesign IT operations to boost business advantage and overcome these common obstacles.  These include:

  • Adapt a competitive mindset Assume that you will have to compete with outside vendors for the opportunity to support your customers
  • Make sure the trains and buses run on time Focus on doing the core things as effectively and efficiently as possible. Get this right first, then worry about the more strategic issues
  • Utilize Customer Relationship Management concepts Your coworkers are your customers
  • Get outside assistance If there are existing issues/strains in the IT and business relationship, get some outside help to repair the relationships
  • Aim at the same targets Make sure the IT goals are tightly and directly related to the business goals
  • Utilize best practices  Wherever possible, implement industry standard methodologies (e.g., PMO, ITIL, development methodologies, etc.)

Successful IT redesign centers on developing people skills and opening communication channels, both within and outside IT. "Before you talk tools, talk to people," says DiDio.

IT Budget Priorities in Perspective

At one time, the IT staff's mission was to stay out on the bleeding edge -- first adopter, first adapter, first developer, first to market. But now the frontlines have changed, withdrawing to more cautious ground where bottom-line hemorrhaging can be stemmed and new strategies drawn.

"Without IT and business goal alignment, there is a high probability that IT will be working on implementation projects that are not the top priorities for business," says Andrew Bartels, an analyst with Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass. "That means that business will be charging ahead, trying to attain its goals without the necessary IT support to achieve success."

The three top IT budget pitfalls, according to Bartels, are:

  • Failing to distinguish between IT spending for ongoing operations and maintenance, and IT spending for new initiatives.
  • Failing to plan for more positive, or more negative, business results than projected in a coming business year.
  • Preparing an IT budget in isolation from the business budget.

"The IT budget needs to be prepared in parallel with the business budget," says Bartels, "with IT costs to support new business initiatives included in the relevant business unit budgets. Also, the IT budget needs to be adjusted based on which new business initiatives that involve IT investment are approved and funded, and which are not."  (article continues)

Strategy Revisited
"Executives who feel that they need the latest and greatest often get caught with an IT infrastructure that doesn't drive the full potential of their productivity," explains Edward E. Endicott, Account Manager of Business & Financial Services with Frost & Sullivan in Palo Alto, Calif.

However, slashing IT budgets and adopting a more cautious and even cynical approach to IT planning is not, in and of itself, a strategy for success. Forward momentum must be maintained and constantly measured.

Endicott recommends asking two questions: Will this technology or infrastructure improve our bottom line? And if so, how will it accomplish the improvement? In other words, the best IT strategy is in support of the organization's business goals. Something easier said than done in light of obstacles ranging from turf wars to budget restraints and increasing regulations.

So how can the budget get done?  According to Bartels, the way to make it all happen is as follows. At the macro level, have an IT strategic plan that is prepared in conjunction with the business' strategic plan, with business strategy feeding into the IT strategic plan but also with IT's input on the business strategic plan. And at the micro level, have IT relationship managers who are part of the IT department with a solid line reporting to the CIO, but who are assigned to work with business units on a dotted line basis. The IT relationship leaders should ideally be part of the business unit's executive team, where they participate in weekly staff meetings, keep track of business unit initiatives, and monitor, if not lead, IT projects in support of the business.

It becomes clear that there should be a tight connection between the strategic plan alignment of business and IT and the day-to-day alignment between business unit and IT.  And that should be done by the IT relationship leader. (article continues)

Working in Concert
"Often, the disconnect between what IT and business goals should be stems from not understanding how the IT infrastructure can improve business," says Endicott. "Both sets of goals can get caught up in thinking that the latest and greatest technology will or will not help business. Because of this, budgeting errors can be easily made."

In the end, the alignment of business and IT goals must be credibly tied to productivity and revenue benefits -- but this is not a function of budget alone.

By itself, IT/business goal alignment has no impact on productivity or revenues. "But," Bartels adds, "goals are abstractions until there is execution at the project level. Implementation projects that both put the right technology in place and change the related business processes are the key to achievement of productivity and revenue benefits."

As the experts advise, budgets should be developed so as to support and promote the business units of the enterprise. And IT executives should make sure the business owners understand and support the goals of the IT projects included in the budget. And, of course, be prepared to revise the budget and its plans based on changes in the financial status of the organization and business units just as any other sector of the organization does.