Wi-Fi surges ahead at work, on campus

Biggest driver likely to be video apps, including video chat

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At Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., IT officials have deployed 802.11n gear from Aruba Networks Inc., partly to support 16 channels of IPTV. Using IPTV is less expensive than delivering cable TV via coaxial and will support all of the Internet-related video that students seek from YouTube, Hulu and other sources, said Jimmy Graham, manager of network services.

While students generally download video content wirelessly these days, Graham and Bruce Osborne, a network engineer at Liberty, said they expect future devices offering video chat to dramatically increase the amount of video sent upstream, adding to network demand.

Aruba Networks, which ranks second in enterprise Wi-Fi sales with 9% of the market, recently highlighted its success with university Wi-Fi deployments, citing projects at Liberty, Brandeis University, Pennsylvania's West Chester University and St. Michael's College. Officials at all of those schools said they would save money using Wi-Fi instead of wired networks, and they noted that not having Wi-Fi could put them at a competitive disadvantage.

Mathias said that while Wi-Fi is popular, especially with students, it can help an organization reduce operating expenses related to network maintenance and monitoring. Cisco's new CleanAir technology, for example, allows ASICs inside new 802.11n APs to monitor interference from other sources of electromagnetic energy, including microwave ovens, and theoretically makes it unnecessary to pay someone to walk around with a spectrum analyzer to find interference.

"Operating expenses include labor, which is expensive, so IT needs to consider how to convert [operating expenses into capital expenses]," like CleanAir does, he said.

A CleanAir beta tester at Portland State University in Oregon said that while the technology will be welcome in dorms -- where there are often sources of interference -- there are still questions about the costs of adding faster access-layer switches to handle the increased bandwidth from 802.11n APs.

Connecting 802.11n APs to gigabit power-over-Ethernet switches to handle all the bandwidth could be expensive, said Clayton Daffron, a network architect at Portland State. "Right now, we have 10/100 PoE switches deployed in our network closets, and the cost to replace these with gigabit connections to support higher N speeds is extremely prohibitive," Daffron said in an e-mail. "Most businesses... will have the same problem as I do in this regard."

As strong as Cisco, Aruba Networks and Motorola have become in the Wi-Fi market, many IT managers and analysts are carefully watching how Hewlett Packard Co.'s ProCurve division performs in the wake of HP's recent purchase of 3Com. HP had $74 million in wireless LAN revenue in 2009, IDC said, while 3Com had $57 million.

A combination of the two would put HP in third place behind Aruba based on those numbers, but Mathias said HP could reach the No. 2 spot just because of its global distribution capabilities.

HP has distinguished itself by offering guarantees on ProCurve products, something Cisco recently said it would do with its 802.11n APs. Several analysts said that Wi-Fi equipment guarantees will probably become standard industrywide in coming years.

The biggest advantage offered by HP's hardware is its ability to unify wired and wireless management -- and that's another feature that could help IT managers decrease operating costs, Mathias said.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen, or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His e-mail address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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