Have You Missed Out On WLAN Profits?
It's not too late to profit from WLANs (wireless local area networks). Despite falling hardware prices, VARs can still find solid margins by focusing on enterprise applications and service.
If you are proud of being a late adopter when it comes to selling WLAN (wireless local area network) products, you probably have lost some money. After all, this isn't a technology that is slowly gaining acceptance. Today, WLANs of all shapes and sizes can be found in all sorts of vertical markets. Most research firms are predicting a minimum of 20% growth over the next four years, even as prices on WLAN products tumble. And yes, everyone has heard about the security problems associated with transmitting data wirelessly, but those problems are actively being solved. WLANs are here to stay, and if your customers aren't already using wireless networks, they probably will be soon - with or without your help.
Don't Underestimate The Profits WLANs Can Offer
When wireless APs (access points) are being advertised for $129 in your Sunday paper, it is obvious why some VARs are quick to dismiss WLANs as a commodity. However, according to Steve Troyer, director of worldwide channels product marketing at Cisco Systems, Inc. (San Jose, CA), viewing WLANs as a commodity is the most common mistake VARs make with this technology. "WLANs can be plug and play for consumers," he said. "But, selling, designing, and supporting enterprise WLANs requires knowledge of RF [radio frequency], security, network management, power, and other network infrastructure issues."
Are WLANs Really A Fit For Your Customers?
Selling WLANs also requires an understanding of the type of customers that can benefit most from this technology. WLANs can't be forced on a client just because they are the latest trend. For example, if your customer's employees are glued to their computers all day long and never have a need to be mobile, maybe a WLAN isn't needed. But, if that same client has areas such as conference rooms that aren't wired to a LAN, or the company is expanding its workforce and needs network access in a different part of a building, then maybe a WLAN could be justified. Remember, customers primarily add WLANs because they want to increase staff productivity or decrease networking costs.
In fact, in a 2001 report entitled "Wireless LAN Benefits Study", research firm NOP World Technology concluded that companies implementing WLAN technology can increase the amount of time an enterprise network is available by 70 minutes per day for the average user, boosting productivity by as much as 22%.
"WLANs are a key part of a total networking solution," said Rob Karnbach, wireless manager at 3Com (Santa Clara, CA). "For example, a VAR installs a new switch infrastructure at a customer site with desktop connections throughout. But what about the conference rooms, lobby area, and break areas? For those areas, a WLAN completes the network coverage." Chris Quilty, a VP at investment banking and securities firm Raymond James & Associates, Inc. (St. Petersburg, FL), concurs with Karnbach. He lists the SME (small/medium enterprise), enterprise, and hotspot (e.g. areas such as conference rooms, lobbies, or break rooms not wired for a LAN) markets as the fastest growing areas of WLAN growth during the next two to three years.
Stress Mobility Over Speed
Data speed has always been one of the most controversial features of WLANs. Wireless advocates touting the technology's 11 Mbps (megabits per second) and 54 Mbps speeds are scoffed at by supporters of the wired camp. After all, how can a WLAN compete with the 100 Mbps of a wired LAN? Nevertheless, WLANs have prospered as companies have willingly sacrificed speed for mobility.
VARs selling WLANs should expect objections regarding data speed (or bandwidth) and be able to differentiate the facts from the hype. "One common mistake VARs make is thinking 802.11b networks transmit at a full 11 Mbps all the time," explained Karnbach. "They need to understand that 802.11b is a shared media and usually transmits at a speed of 5.5 Mbps, depending upon the number of network users."
Wireless Security Is Hot
While bandwidth is one of the most controversial features of WLANs, security is probably the biggest concern your customers will have with this technology. It seems everywhere you look there is some story about how a credit card number or some private corporate data was snatched out of thin air by a WLAN hacker. Everyone is afraid of this scenario, but should they be?
To answer that question, you first must understand the problem, namely the inherent vulnerability of WEP (wired equivalent privacy). WEP is the basic level of data encryption provided in APs - and the source of all the negative press surrounding WLANs. "A VAR's WLAN solution should include APs and clients that support more than WEP," stated Troyer. "The solutions should offer advanced security such as using RADIUS [remote authentication dial-in user service]-based authentication rather than static WEP keys that are hard to manage and easy to compromise."
VPNs (virtual private networks) are another common security solution for WLANs. The nice thing about VPNs is that they are standards-based, thereby not locking the user into a proprietary solution. However, VPNs and other security-related hardware and software add additional costs to a WLAN installation. While that may sound enticing to a VAR, the customer may feel otherwise. In short, there is no one perfect solution to solve all the WLAN security problems. As cliché as it sounds, the right security solution depends upon the customer's needs. VARs need to choose WLAN solutions for their customers that balance high cost and high manageability. For example, can you justify extra security hardware such as a VPN for a manufacturer that is only using its WLAN in a warehouse for transmitting work-in-process data?
WLANs = A Complementary Incremental Revenue Source
In addition to hardware profits, there are plenty of value-added services that can accompany a WLAN install. For instance, security audits are gaining in popularity. VARs can use wireless "sniffer" products to locate rogue (or unauthorized), user-installed APs that create hidden security holes in a network. Sniffers are really software programs that act as wireless protocol analyzers to monitor and scrutinize network traffic, detecting bottlenecks and problems. Using this information, VARs help network managers keep data traffic flowing efficiently, and in turn, endear themselves to the customer.
It's not too late for a VAR to begin selling WLANs. The technology and the markets are continually evolving, offering more opportunities. "In the very near term, expect vendors to aggressively market multi-protocol solutions that include some combination of 802.11a/b/g and Bluetooth," Quilty commented. "Over a longer term, ultra wideband [i.e. transmitting large amounts of digital data over a wide spectrum of frequency bands, with very low power, for a short distance] could gain traction with the blessing of the FCC [Federal Communications Commission]." Troyer added, "WLANs present a complementary, incremental revenue source for VARs. WLAN deployments often lead to larger network upgrades to support power, telephony, or security requirements."