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Navigating the WLAN Waters

Continually changing products and standards are adding confusion to the process of choosing wireless LAN products.

By Lauren Gibbons Paul
May 3, 2004 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Keeping up with new developments in wireless LAN technology is getting tougher. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Inc. seems to ratify a new and improved variation of its 802.11 WLAN standard every few months. Meanwhile, vendors announce round after round of products touting the latest enhancements -- sometimes even before the new standards are final. For IT managers looking to build anew or upgrade an existing WLAN, keeping abreast of the choices isn't easy.
"It's a lot of work to keep up," says Carl Whitman, executive director of e-operations at American University in Washington. Last year, Whitman finished a 13-month WLAN implementation based on 11Mbit/sec. 802.11b technology. Now he's considering converting the radios in some of his Cisco Aironet 1200 series access points (AP) to the 54Mbit/sec. 802.11g standard to boost throughput. But Whitman is taking his time sifting through the array of choices that have appeared on the scene since he first considered WLANs three years ago.
"New features and functions are coming at a staggering rate," says Ron Seide, product line manager for the WLAN networking business unit at Cisco Systems Inc. The good news is that Cisco and other vendors of enterprise-grade WLAN equipment are designing products that often can be upgraded with flash updates or add-in modules. "With software upgrades, you can push the configuration file change out to your access points without having to touch them again," Seide says.
Changing Channels
Vendors also offer hardware updates. For example, users of Cisco's 802.11b APs can convert to 802.11g with a $149 swap-out of the unit's internal radio hardware. Customers can upgrade units to 802.11a for $500. Cisco also offers Aironet client adapters that can run in 802.11a, b and g modes.
Ultimately, the ideal Wi-Fi architecture will be multiband, supporting both 802.11b and g (which operate at 2.4 GHz over three channels) and 802.11a (which operates at 5 GHz on up to 24 channels). Although 802.11a isn't backward-compatible with 802.11b clients, in the long term many organizations will need the extra channels available in 802.11a to support more users at a higher data rate.
But networks are still likely to continue to support devices operating in both frequency ranges. "It's not a 2.4 GHz vs. 5 GHz battle. It will be both, like an AM/FM radio," says Leigh Chinitz, chief technical adviser at Proxim Corp., a WLAN equipment vendor in Sunnyvale, Calif. "You will have b and g and a running, and it will be invisible to users."

Navigating the WLAN Waters
Image Credit: Lasse Skarbovik

A mixed 802.11b/g/a architecture may be the wave of the

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