Forecast 2006: Wireless

Manageability problems continue to stymie widespread adoption.

For every CIO who's pushing through a wireless project in 2006, there's one holding back.

If it seems that the hype surrounding wireless was all too familiar last year, that's because it's a perennial front-runner on every CIO's to-do list for the coming year. To wit: In a January 2005 Gartner Inc. survey, 1,300 CIOs labeled wireless-related technologies -- including overall enterprise security and wireless workforce enablement -- first and third on their priority lists for that year. Computerworld's own survey ranked wireless implementations third among projects planned for 2006.

Yet at the same time, many IT executives are hesitant. In the same Computerworld survey, wireless ranked second among technologies that delivered more hype than results last year. And while the term wireless covers a lot of technology, users cite the usual suspects -- security, manageability and standards -- and, more recently, perceived shortcomings of Wi-Fi as their primary concerns.

"Wireless is a space where standards are continuing to evolve," says John Connors, director of global business systems at PolyOne Corp., a manufacturer of thermoplastic and other polymer materials in Avon Lake, Ohio. "Seeking a perfect security solution is a good governance step, but the speed at which hackers defeat each one makes it a never-ending journey. At some point, you have to just pick a [wireless] technology."

A June 2005 survey by Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass., revealed that the security and manageability of wireless technologies continue to be the top concerns of IT managers, even ahead of cost. Thirty-five percent of respondents to the survey listed security as the foremost obstacle to wireless technology adoption, even while 25% of them, mainly large enterprises, were piloting or considering wireless LAN deployments.

"Although there are a lot of reasons [wireless has been slow to take off], security is still the biggest inhibitor," says Ellen Daley, an analyst at Forrester. "But we're seeing larger enterprises that are more security-conscious beginning to adopt [wireless] faster."

Daley says wireless management software from vendors such as Sybase Inc. and Intellisync Corp. and endpoint security systems from companies like Altiris Inc. will help drive wireless deeper into the enterprise.

Meanwhile, IT managers continue to struggle with other aspects of wireless security. At PolyOne, Connors says consumer comfort with cellular phones and PDAs, and the ease with which the devices can be bought and used, can compound an already prickly security and management problem. Preventing nonsecure devices from accessing the network through the firewall has been a concern at the company. The very convenience and consumer-friendliness of wireless technology increases the risk of a security breach.

"One of the biggest challenges in wireless results from that fact that all the technology can be bought in a convenience store. It's easier than ever for consumers to purchase the technology. It's also an easier thing for a consumer to use, maybe too easy, than it is in a large warehouse that's part of the enterprise," says Connors.

Access Controls

Connors' concern isn't unique among IT managers. For a wireless application to be successful, three types of security -- access, link and device -- have to be in place. The Wi-Fi standard includes specifications for link security to help establish a secure connection between wireless devices and the wireless LAN, but access security through firewalls and device security in cell phones and PDAs require additional software, says Ken Dulaney, a Gartner analyst.

"Access security is a valid argument against wireless. It has yet to be solved, and that gets worse when you have more connections from outside the firewall," he says. "Wi-Fi works very well, but the implementation of security can be a challenge."

Wireless security concerns are not confined to North America. Last April, Gartner asked 1,400 European CIOs to name their top three technology priorities in 2005. Nearly two-thirds said they expected mobile workforce spending to grow faster than overall IT budgets. Dulaney says the results would be similar in other global regions, including Asia.

Whither Wi-Fi?

Looking ahead, even though the WiMax broadband wireless linking standard is beginning to supplant Wi-Fi as the most buzzed-about wireless LAN technology, Wi-Fi continues to vex IT managers. In addition to the same security and management issues that crop up with wireless in general, users are leery of Wi-Fi's constraints on distance and scalability.

"The physical limitations of Wi-Fi are frustrating," says Matthew Ray, manager of Web and application development at Deborah Wood Associates Inc., a marketing services firm in Carmel, Ind. "From a consumer market standpoint, it makes a lot of sense, but from a commercial or corporate standpoint, we haven't seen it get much use here. Also, with the emergence of Gigabit Ethernet, it's increasingly difficult to see the advantages of Wi-Fi."

Elsewhere, the combination of Wi-Fi's limited scalability and reliability and end-user ambivalence toward wireless have impeded its adoption in the enterprise.

At Temple University in Philadelphia, the IT department recently spent $500,000 on wireless LAN infrastructure products from Symbol Technologies Inc., but it hasn't paid off, says Tim O'Rourke, vice president of computer and information services at Temple.

"We're hoping Wi-Fi becomes more reliable and scalable," he says. "I can't say I got a return on investment, but it's not the technology -- it's the device on the other end that uses wireless."

O'Rourke says that even though the quality of his vendors has been excellent, access points and reliability have limited Wi-Fi's usefulness at the university. "To use wireless around campus, you first have to have a laptop, and that's where it falls down. Forty percent of our students have laptops, but less than 3% carry them to class. That's because they say they're too heavy, or they're afraid they'll break or get stolen," says O'Rourke.

Will 2006 be the year users can finally move their concerns about wireless down on their list of priorities, if not remove them altogether? Maybe not just yet, says Forrester's Daley.

"It may still take a while. It's not like CIOs are ready to say, 'I feel good about this technology,' " she says.

At the same time, analysts say that because wireless is further embedding itself in the enterprise, management and security will be even greater concerns, and users will need to look to software vendors for help.

The future of Wi-Fi? As IT managers get a better grasp of what Wi-Fi does well and work with vendors to iron out security and reliability, use of wireless LANs will continue to grow.

"Wireless LANs can be extremely secure," says Dulaney. "The 802.11 standard is very solid. If you mix and match components, you might find that you need to team up with your vendors on security, but if you use a reasonable number of vendors, you should be OK."

Wireless has become almost ubiquitous among consumers, and business users and IT managers alike can point out appropriate applications for it. But clearly, hurdles remain before it takes the enterprise by storm. It seems that wireless will continue to hold promise for at least one more year -- but that promise will continue to be kept in check by the fact that its benefits won't be reaped easily.

Webster is a freelance writer in Providence, R.I. You can contact him at john.s.webster@verizon.net.

See more wireless predictions in Matt Hamblen's Reporter's Notebook.

What else is on tap this year in IT? See the complete Forecast 2006 special report.



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