Compatibility Clashes

When I published my first column about LANs in 1982, I suggested that it would take less than 10 years for virtually all enterprise computers to be hitched to local-area networks. Not a bad forecast, except I predicted that they would be linked via CATV coaxial cable and not Ethernet. Oops.

Now two decades older, if not wiser, I ask you to consider my latest prediction: 10 years from now, you won't be wiring anything new outside your data center. Forget about pulling more Cat 5 copper wire or fiber-optic cable. Every new digital device that computes in the enterprise will be wirelessly connected.

The benefits will be great, but you can be sure this wireless world will have its share of headaches. The early adopters among you who are buying laptops and PDAs equipped with wireless adapters and installing access points for your users have undoubtedly already run headfirst into the biggest problem: interoperability clashes similar to those experienced 20 years ago by network pioneers.

Sure, there are standards, such as 802.11a and b and g, and don't forget the work on the emerging very high-performance 802.15.3 standard. You can count on many more to follow.

And the industry-sponsored Wi-Fi Alliance in Mountain View, Calif., is working mightily to certify wireless device compatibility among the hundreds of vendors cranking out thousands of products. The Wi-Fi Alliance has certified more than 500 units in its five labs around the world—everything from access points to keyboards, mice and digital cameras. The queues for Wi-Fi certification are growing longer, indicating a bright spot of market growth in the depressed IT industry.

But here's the snag: Some products will surely fail to achieve Wi-Fi compliance, and those vendors aren't likely to pull their products from the market. They'll simply send the devices back to engineering to meet the interoperability standards while generating revenue from the noncompliant ones.

Even the Wi-Fi Alliance seal of approval goes just part of the way. The association certifies only the bottom two layers of the International Standards Organization's (ISO) hoary Open Systems Interconnection (OSI) protocol stack. After that, you're on your own.

Going back to 1982 once again, when the Ethernet compatibility issues were resolved at Layers 1 (physical) and 2 (data link), the real interoperability issues for IT managers hit hard at the upper layers. The fact that the ISO/OSI network model even needs to be mentioned underscores the fragile nature of interoperability in today's wireless systems.

For some IT managers, these interoperability headaches have already begun. Those of you who rushed to install 802.11a units already know that the next-generation 802.11b devices speak an entirely different language.

But none of this should suggest that you halt your wireless projects. Quite the contrary. Wireless networks are often the right technology to improve worker productivity and gain a competitive advantage.

Ira Brodsky, who has followed the wireless radio-frequency phenomenon for about 25 years as president of Datacomm Research Co. in Chesterfield, Mo., says that while not a completely immature technology, wireless LANs need more attention from senior IT managers than do their boring, mature wired counterparts.

"When people create a specification that creates a standard, you're still a long way from interoperability," says Brodsky.

So how do you ease the pain? Brodsky suggests that companies embarking on serious wireless projects pick a single large vendor that complies with standards and has compatibility certification from the likes of the Wi-Fi Alliance. The next step is to make sure that their users' second- and third-tier wireless suppliers adhere to that main vendor's implementation.

This strategy will be particularly useful when you implement the absolutely essential WLAN security policies. WLAN vendors could employ security differently. For example, some may add more aggressive levels of user authentication, such as challenge-response mechanisms that require users to reauthenticate themselves in the middle of a session. Others may not. Mixing the two could prove to be more than annoying for end users.

So, while you may not be wiring anything new outside your data center 10 years from now, you will be dealing with some of the same issues that you grapple with today—keeping your users happy while making everything work together. Mark Hall is Computerworld's opinions editor. Contact him at



Turning Blue

The percentage of U.S. handheld devices that will be Bluetooth-enabled:

Turning Blue

Source: IDC, Framingham, Mass., October 2002 Hot Spot Locations

Publicly available wireless LAN “hot spots” will be found in more than 18,000 U.S. locations by 2004.

Hot Spot Locations

TOTAL: 18,207 U.S. locations; “Other” includes campuses and libraries, for example.

Source: IDC, Framingham, Mass., June 2002 PDA Leaders

The top five vendors of personal digital assistants, based on market share and ranked in terms of U.S. shipments in the third quarter of 2002:

PDA Leaders
Source: Dataquest Inc., San Jose, October 2002

Special Report

Tiny Gadgets, Huge Costs

Stories in this report:

Copyright © 2002 IDG Communications, Inc.

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