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Issue of July 2004 
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Wireless in the enterprise

Will wireless work for you?

While Indian enterprises haven't really been swept away by the Wi-Fi storm, many have used the technology in a productive manner. Here's how companies have benefited from wireless, and also a look at the various technology nuances. by Soutiman Das Gupta

The Wi-Fi storm brewed a couple of years ago and made many promises to the Indian enterprise. But was it all just a storm in a teacup? Though it was touted as the 'next big thing' for enterprises, not many Indian companies actually put their money into this technology.

While some LAN user segments, like educational institutes and the hospitality industry openly embraced Wi-Fi, enterprises have been slower to get on the bandwagon. But a number of Indian enterprises have found innovative ways to use Wi-Fi and other wireless technologies in their networks. And these implementations allow the user companies to save time, manpower, financial resources, and ultimately boost productivity.

Innovative Wi-Fi

LG Electronics India Ltd., runs business-critical applications like an internal ERP system and Lotus Notes, and provides Internet access to its plant and executive employees through its Wi-Fi infrastructure.

“The goal is to improve collaboration between employees within the manufacturing plant which leads to better decision making to help meet their deadlines,” said Arindam Bose, Head IT of the organization.

The 802.11b solution was deployed in its 47 acre campus in Noida. Other than saving time and resources, Bose feels that the Wi-Fi solution takes care of cable management, which is a hassle and cost-intensive area.

Sumul Dairy in Gujarat, which is a part of the Surat District Cooperative Milk Producers' Union Limited, is a big believer in the benefits of Wi-Fi. It deployed 12 Access Points (APs) in its two square Km (approx.) large campus and shares mission-critical data within the internal departments like the boardroom, veterinary department, by-products department, finished products sections, artificial insemination department, and the ERP servers.

“The company has benefited a lot in areas of cost, and reduction of monitoring and maintenance issues,” says Satyen Naik, Assistant Manager (IS) of the company. Other than the campus, the company uses Wi-Fi links to connect to its two cattle feed factories more than 14 Kms away and its chilling center 33 Kms away.

P&O Ports in Navi Mumbai (near Mumbai) uses heavy moving cranes to load cargo on the ships and remote controls them with the use of Wi-Fi technology. These cranes were earlier controlled from base stations more than 100 meters away, through wires which would at times get cut due to the movement of the cranes.

To address the issue, The organization used 802.11b technology to connect the cranes to the base stations. And now, the cranes enjoy unhindered movement in the port. Although the range of an 802.11b Wireless LAN (WLAN) is 35 meters indoors and 100 meters in the open, the range in this case was extended by strategic placement of antennae and wireless APs.

Jindal Strips Limited, a part of a steel conglomerate in Haryana wanted to connect its Cold Roll Division with its HR and Administration Division. The two division's offices were across the road, but had a railway track planted squarely in between them.

The company first used optic fiber links, but they were not very useful because the roads were continuously dug up for repairs and the intense heat from the furnaces was too harsh on the fiber.

The company deployed an 11 Mbps WLAN building-to-building bridge, omni-direction antenna, and other Wi-Fi equipment at the premises. The connectivity links are now always up, and allows the company to share vital business data without downtime.

In the area of e-governance, the Guntur collectorate in Andhra Pradesh needed to be connected to the Andhra Pradesh State-Wide Area Network (APSWAN). This would help improve communication ties for better government back-office operations. Since leased lines were not easily available, the government decided to use WLAN links to transmit the necessary information.

Not too popular yet

Wi-Fi brings about newer areas of business applications like real-time inventory control, fleet management, warehouse management, and Voice over WLAN (VoWLAN). And the use of Wi-Fi has a number of advantages. The time for deployment is less, there is no need to dig up land to lay expensive cable, it provides mobility, and makes operations more flexible.

Although Wi-Fi has moved out of the hypothetical to become a reality for many enterprises, there are a number of reasons why Wi-Fi is not very popular as yet. They are lack of strategy, security concerns, linear scaling issues, standards issues, and cost.

The strategic use of Wi-Fi

“A significant reason why the potential of Wi-Fi technologies has not yet been exploited very well in an enterprise is that most user companies conceptualize a wireless network as a separate entity, or as an 'add-on' for information access, explains V.K. Ramani, President IT, UTI Bank.

The correct strategy for the use of wireless technologies is to build a fully integrated network with a single set of services. Even the site planning for access points, needs to be done after you take the actual services into account.

The user company can plug access points into either a WLAN switch or an appliance that sits either in front of or behind an existing Ethernet switch that essentially allows the access points to communicate with each other through management software.

Security in mid-air

Opening up company data to the air waves introduces a range of security concerns especially in large environments with numerous APs that cover a wide area. The reason is that, the control over the network becomes decentralized, and it is an issue to enforce an organization's security policy at these distributed points.

Security breaches opens an organization to Man-in-the-Middle (MITM) attacks where a user of any WLAN-enabled device can tap into the airwaves. It's important to monitor each connection all the time for anomalies. The use of point-to-point VPNs can address some security issues.

Satyen Naik, Assistant Manager (IS) of Sumul Dairy says, “Security management is an important issue. We use 128-bit encryption, anti-Denial of Service infrastructure, NAT firewalls, Mac address-based access control, and password authentication to make our network secure.”

The original security enabler Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP) is not entirely secure since it uses a static key which can be cracked with off-the-shelf tools. These concerns have been addressed by the Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) security specification developed by the IEEE in conjunction with the Wi-Fi Alliance. WPA provides strong data encryption to correct WEP weaknesses, and adds user authentication, which was missing.

Interference and load balancing

WLAN transmission can be prone to interference issues like Radio Frequency Interference (RFI) and ElectroMagnetic Interference (EMI) from other devices, and even cordless phones and microwave ovens. And this issue is especially relevant in factory floors where various heavy equipment are likely to produce interference.

In cases like these, the APs should be moved as far away from the source of interference as possible. In the case of LG Electronics, Arindam Bose says, “Designing the architecture for the Wi-Fi was a smooth process as the area in the plant is wide and open and our office has a clean environment. Setting up the APs and other devices was a simple task.”

If a particular area sees less useage of the AP but another location is near overload. A good move is to shift the less-used AP nearer to the busy location to ensure better load balancing.

Switch off problems

In order to extend a LAN, an organization can deploy a LAN switch, which is usually easy to deploy and it is possible to add new devices to an existing LAN with little trouble.

But it's not easy to do the same with a WLAN since it's analog, has interference issues, and doesn't have much linear scaling capability. As more APs are added to the backbone, they have to be configured one at a time. This raises management issues.

A way to combat these issues is to use a combination of WLAN switches and subscriber management software. The switches will handle tasks that would normally be dealt with separately at individual APs, like security, data encryption, management, and allocation of available bandwidth to individual users. And consequently, this will give APs the power to be aware of the network, as well as the user.

Strategic placement of APs and antennae will help extend the range of a WLAN to a considerable extent.

Many standards and some licenses

The most popular standard for Wi-Fi communication today is 802.11b, which allows 11 Mbps bandwidth in the 2.4 Ghz spectrum. And most organizations with WLAN use this standard. The user organization does not need any special license to use an 802.11b solution if the infrastructure is within the company's campus.

But if the Wi-Fi transmission is beyond the campus an organization needs a license from the Wireless Planning & Coordination (WPC) Wing of the Ministry of Communications and IT.

Its close cousin, 802.11a allows 54 Mbps in the 5 Ghz spectrum and is backward compatible with 802.11b. A few vendors have also started to manufacture equipment based on his standard. But the Indian government does not allow transmission in this wavelength.

Other standards like 802.11 e,f,g,h, and i do not have too many supporting products and equipment as yet. And it's not clear if there will be issues of compatibility and interoperability. A scenario like this makes enterprises hesitant to invest in a particular technology as it brings doubts about obsolescence and future support.

Cost and deployment time

The total cost of APs and wireless network adapters for each user may or may not be higher than that of wired infrastructure depending on the specific needs of an enterprise. However the prices of WLAN infrastructure have fallen over the last four quarters. An AP is now available for as low as Rs 4,000.

“As of now, the cost of Wi-Fi is rather high when compared to that of a wired network. But if you consider the benefits like flexibility and mobility, the cost is justified, sys V.K. Ramani, President IT, at UTI Bank.

WLANs are very cost effective in environments which do not permit laying of new cables like in a leased premise, heritage site, and a shop floor where manufacturing equipment has already been deployed in an assembly. And since the deployment time of a WLAN is also much lesser than that of a wired infrastructure, it is preferred by many organizations.

“The cost of a wireless link, as a last-mile is definitely more than that of an OFC link, if the distance is only a few hundred meters. But for distances above 500 meters, a Wi-Fi link could be preferred, both for cost-advantage as well as for less deployment time,” said Prakash Chaukar, General Manager, BSES Infrastructure Ltd.

Soutiman Das Gupta can be reached at

soutimand@networkmagazineindia.com

Voice over wireless
Voice over WLAN (VoWLAN), or in other words telephony over a wireless link is set to become a popular application for enterprises. The application can improve group communications, reduce call costs within offices, and perhaps replace pagers.

Sumul Dairy, a 425 Crore organization which is a manufacturing unit for Gujarat Co-operative Milk Marketing Federation Limited, uses 802.11b links to connect its Head Office with units in remote locations in Gujarat.

The link is used to transmit Oracle database, IP Camera, and e-mail information. The company has also procured a license to allow voice communication and set up a voice gateway to make VoWLAN possible.

Satyen Naik - EDP Manager, of the organization is pleased with the performance of the infrastructure and says, “Leased lines are not reliable at remote locations, and our telephone bills were very high. The VoWLAN solution is very cost-effective and reliable. In the near future, we plan to implement Video Conferencing facilities on the same network.”

A research team of Media Lab Asia (MLA) has created an 85 km-long multi hop wireless corridor between Kanpur and Lucknow, called the Digital Gangetic Plain. It uses the 802.11b protocol and uses VoIP technology to provide the rural population access to Internet-based applications and low cost phone calls.

Although VoWLAN technology is suitable for large enterprises, it could be around three years before the technology is cheap enough to adopt in small medium-sized enterprises.


The great Wi-Fi push
Sometimes it happens that, a useful technology has been around for a while, and many companies are eager to deploy, but there aren't enough products and solutions to chose from. But this year, Wi-Fi product manufacturers have made a number of products and solutions available in the Indian market. And these organizations have made aggressive strategies to push the use of Wi-Fi in Indian enterprises.

Majors

Networking majors like Cisco, Intel, D-Link, and 3Com have introduced a broad range of offerings. Cisco for instance has Access Points, wireless bridges, workgroup bridges, antennas, client adapters, and other accessories. D-Link and 3Com are also ready with products in similar areas.

Cisco believes that the demand for mobility and its flexibility will fuel the demand for Wi-Fi connectivity. Enterprises especially will need remote access to broadband. Ease of use and convenience will be the major reasons. Besides, prices of WLAN products have fallen by around 50 percent in 2002, and further by 20 percent in 2003.

The company also believes that a large percentage of Indians will access the Internet for the first time courtesy a Wi-Fi network. Proof of that are the increasing Wi-Fi deployments in Rural India in Maharastra, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and Andhra Pradesh among others.

Intel has already introduced Centrino, which includes the Intel Pentium M processor, the Intel 855 chipset family, and the Intel PRO/Wireless 2100 network connection. Laptop and Notebook makers can use this architecture to wireless-enable their products in the market. Individual users will not need to make an extra investment.

The company's next mobile chipset, code-named 'Grantsdale' will include a software-based wireless access point as part of the 'Prescott' processor.

Bullish about Wi-Max

Intel is bullish about 802.16 technology, also called WiMAX, which complements WLAN by connecting 802.11 hot spots to the Internet and provides a wireless alternative for last-mile broadband connectivity to businesses and homes.

The company believes that wireless service providers and telecommunication equipment industries will use WiMAX technology due to its cost advantage to provide last-mile connectivity. The vision outlined by Intel includes delivery of standards-based silicon for both WLAN networking and cost-effective and interoperable 802.16 WMAN hardware.

In India, Intel has set up a Wi-Fi test network for a large telecom company. The results will be out in a couple of months.

SME and SOHO

There's good news for companies in the SME and SOHO segment. Vendors such as Linksys will launch economically priced products like a wireless broadband router with in-built access point functionality, a 802.11g wireless print server, a wireless presentation player, and an 802.11g USB adapter.

This will help service providers drive broadband into the SME, SOHO, and also the home segment.


Upcoming Wi-Fi standards
802.11g - Establishes an additional modulation technique for 2.4 Ghz band. Intended to provide speed up to 54 Mbps.

802.11e - Address quality of service requirements for all IEEE WLAN radio interfaces.

802.11i - Enhancing wireless with security that is stronger and better suited to voice.

802.11k - Is set to make more efficient use of WLAN resources through feedback from clients. It will enable switches and access points to make better roaming decisions, thus providing faster and uninterrupted wireless service.

802.11f - Defines inter-access point communications to facilitate multiple vendor-distributed WLAN networks.

 
     
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Copyright 2001: Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Limited (Mumbai, India). All rights reserved throughout the world.
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