The WLAN Metamorphosis
With new wireless LAN (WLAN) standards (802.11g and 802.11i) come new opportunities for VARs selling this technology.
As a VAR or integrator, you should love the wireless LAN (WLAN) market. After all, WLAN technology seems to be altered more frequently than Michael Jackson's nose. Increasingly higher bandwidths and differing frequency bands create a perceived sense of ongoing obsolescence in customers' minds. A new WLAN standard gives that small portion of the market that can afford to stay on the cutting edge with technology another reason to open the coffers. But new standards don't always mean your customers have to start from scratch. Most new WLAN products are marketed as backwards-compatible or future-proofed. That means you can convince your current average WLAN customers to upgrade now and not be afraid to do so again in the future as new wireless technologies evolve.
To 'G' Or Not To 'G', That Is The Question
The newest WLAN standard is 802.11g, which provides data transfer speeds up to 54 Mbps (megabits per second) in the 2.4 GHz frequency band. That's the same frequency band currently dominated by a massive install base of 802.11b equipment, which offers speeds of up to 11 Mbps. That similarity is going to cause your customers to ask, "What's the difference?," to which you can respond by explaining the terms orthogonal frequency-division multiplexing (OFDM) and direct sequence spread spectrum (DSSS).
Tell them that 802.11b WLANs use DSSS technology to divide the 2.4 GHz band into overlapping channels that are each 22 MHz wide. In contrast, 802.11g (like 802.11a WLANs) uses OFDM, which splits a signal into several narrowband channels at different frequencies. If a look of bewilderment remains on their faces even after that seemingly "simple" explanation, try telling them that with 802.11g the same access point can supply 54 Mbps to 802.11g stations while also working with older 802.11b stations. "By migrating from DSSS to OFDM, users will enjoy as much as a fivefold increase in performance," stated Ron Seide, senior product manager of Cisco Systems' (San Jose, CA) wireless networking business unit. "We believe customers will want dual-band (i.e. 2.4 GHz /5 GHz). Eventually, we think the difference between the various technologies (802.11b, 802.11a, 802.11g) won't even matter to the customer."
Welcome To The 802.11g Age
With wireless security concerns and changing WLAN standards, some of your customers may question the future of 802.11g and the WLAN market in general. In regard to the latter, research firm In-Stat/MDR predicts falling prices for 802.11b equipment will cause total WLAN market revenues to grow by only 23%, from $1.8 billion in 2001 to $2.2 billion in 2003. The firm also sees dual-band equipment shipments increasing and 802.11g emerging as the preferred 2.4 GHz WLAN technology.
Gilles Ganault, product manager for WLAN solutions at 3Com Corp. (Santa Clara, CA), agrees with In-Stat/MDR's analysis. "With 802.11g products entering the market, we see sales of 802.11b solutions declining," he said. "Eventually, 802.11b will lose market share while 802.11g takes over. Most likely, 802.11g and 802.11a will become complementary solutions since they offer the same speed, but 802.11a still brings higher capacity because of the different, less crowded frequency [i.e. 5 GHz]."
You're Vulnerable Without Wireless Security Knowledge
802.11g technology is not the only new WLAN advancement you should be prepared to discuss with your customers. WLAN security continues to keep IT managers awake at night, and the cure isn't a one-size-fits-all solution. "There has been a lot of fear and hype surrounding wireless security," remarked Ray Martino, general manager and VP of network products for mobile computing vendor Symbol Technologies (Holtsville, NY). "VARs should realize there are multiple wireless security options. They should be familiar with the new 802.11i standard and with WPA [Wi-Fi protected access]." According to Seide, 802.11i provides for single-session, single-user, dynamic encryption keys, which improve the security and scalability of older security protocols using shared and static keys. 802.11i is in final draft form with ratification expected by late 2003. In the meantime, WPA is the interim standard, replacing the much-maligned WEP (wired equivalent privacy) security protocol.
If you consider yourself a WLAN security neophyte and you are feeling really ambitious, learn more about using authentication (i.e. when users log on to a network with a name and password) protocols such as PEAP (protected extensible authentication protocol), LEAP (lightweight EAP), EAP-TLS (transport layer security), and EAP-TTLS (tunneled transport layer security). Furthermore, Ganault recommends learning how to set up a VPN (virtual private network) and understanding RADIUS (remote authentication dial-in user service) servers.
SOHO vs Enterprise WLANs
Don't think that just because you target large enterprises for WLAN implementations you don't need to bother with learning about SOHO (small office, home office) products. Believe it or not, some of your customers may think the equipment they used to set up their home WLAN will suffice at the office, too. "We haven't seen too many VARs trying to implement SOHO products into the enterprise, but this is a potential mistake that can be made for new entrants into the WLAN space," Martino said.
In general, SOHO solutions tend to be more stand-alone while enterprise solutions require greater integration with an existing wired LAN. Furthermore, most enterprise solutions offer support for SNMP (simple network management protocol), RADIUS, and network management tools.
Seide listed the following as key points to emphasize when selling enterprise WLAN products:
- Investment Protection: Enterprise WLAN products usually have field upgradeable hardware and software (e.g. an 802.11b product that can be upgraded to support the 802.11g standard, or can support both 802.11a and 802.11b simultaneously).
- Security: Enterprise WLANs offer network managers the ability to deploy standards-based, customer-specific, scalable security solutions.
- Manageability: Enterprise WLANs should have an integrated set of WLAN management tools that span both wired and wireless networks. These tools provide comprehensive monitoring and event logging, troubleshooting, configuration changes, and firmware upgrades.
Indeed, ongoing demand and new standards are continuing to make the enterprise WLAN market enticing for channel companies. "Successful VARs will look at a WLAN as just another part of a customer's overall network," Ganault concluded.