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Wireless-first networks verge on wireless-only, but concerns remain
A wireless-first strategy could spread among enterprises and proceed toward wireless-only. IT staff, however, should heed concerns around capacity, management and cost.
Wireless-first is an IT and telecom strategy that uses wireless communications and networking as the primary vehicles for all communications modalities. These modalities include voice, messaging, email, local and cloud apps, telephony and video.
The most common end-user device related to wireless-first is the smartphone, which is usually supplied by the end user as part of a BYOD program. While smartphones are considered wireless-first, they're really wireless-only devices. They can't connect via a cable in a simple way -- and such cabling would defeat the mobility that is central to current lifestyles and workstyles -- and they use both Wi-Fi and wide area carrier networks.
Although wireless-first has caught on among organizations of all sizes, missions and types, it has raised a number of concerns with respect to cost, capacity and implications arising from in-demand growth. These concerns require the attention of IT management, especially as wireless-first proceeds on its inevitable journey to wireless-only.
What wireless-first looks like
A typical in-building wireless-first infrastructure consists of just a few hardware components beyond the end-user devices noted above. Increasingly, the infrastructure has included specialized IoT devices -- primarily involved in security, energy management and location -- and tracking services based on Bluetooth Low Energy.
These infrastructure-side requirements include access points (APs), which act as the bridges between wireless users and the rest of the network infrastructure. That infrastructure includes Ethernet switches that power and interconnect the APs and provide essential wired connectivity to printers, servers and other stationary equipment. It also includes a router, firewall or Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol server that bridges to the WAN.
Additional infrastructure may be added to meet local IT policies and operational objectives. Overall, however, there's no need to provision Ethernet drops to every location in the building, which then eliminates the expense of installing and maintaining this infrastructure. Similarly, it's possible to cancel the PBX, desktop phones and all the associated wires. Things are looking good now, with low capital and operating costs, ultimate flexibility and ease of scalability as demand inevitably grows over time.
So, what's not to like about wireless-first? Nothing, really, if the following factors are kept in mind:
Capacity. Wireless connectivity is no longer about coverage and throughput alone. Rather, the wireless network must provision sufficient aggregate capacity to meet the needs of users and their traffic flows at any location and time of day. Meeting this objective is getting easier with advances in analytics, management console monitoring and alerts. Machine learning and AI are also increasingly applied to reconfigure settings automatically as required. Of course, new APs will be required to address gaps in coverage and capacity and support upgrades to newer wireless technologies, which also enhance capacity.
Integrity. Good planning and operations entail at least minimal overprovisioning of APs -- and wireless LAN controllers, if required -- to cover any possible equipment failures. Enterprise-class Wi-Fi systems automatically reconfigure and fail over to work around a failed AP. Note, however, that IT planning and operations should also look into redundancy in internet service provider backhaul and interconnect, as well. This is also true for wired services.
Management. As noted above, knowing and using the many features of a management console extends far beyond initial configuration. The console is key to understanding what's really happening in the network, from handling traffic demands to dealing with security issues. A rapidly emerging class of analytics and related tools, which use AI and machine learning, are yielding a quicker and more complete understanding of operations. In some cases, they can apply automation to address issues before users -- and, sometimes, operations staff -- become aware of potential problems.
On the road to wireless-only
In the wide area, a cellular carrier is responsible for all of the factors above. As such, it's a good idea to meet with your carrier to discuss your organization's throughput, capacity, availability and geographic coverage requirements. Although throughput will be lower in the wide area than on a contemporary Wi-Fi network, carriers are working hard to enhance their fourth-generation services while prepping for the rollout of gigabit-class 5G over the next few years.
Wireless-first is headed in the direction of wireless-only. Indeed, we have no choice but to move toward wireless-only, as it's already essential to wide area cellular services and almost every new subscriber device sold today lacks a network port.
Over time, handoff between landlines, cellular and Wi-Fi will become so easy and transparent that wired voice services will become truly obsolete. We're, thus, well on our way to wireless-only everywhere, with the convenience, connectivity and cost profiles that will make this evolution irrevocable.