Is it time to switch to an all-wireless network?

The cost of wireless network adapters is nearly at parity with wired ones,

If you haven't looked at your network cabling in a quite awhile, it might be time to consider upgrading to an all-wireless network infrastructure. Why? Because wireless is a very viable option that can connect all your PCs together.

What's happened? Well, the cost of wireless network adapters is nearly at parity with wired ones, and if you are buying laptops as your main desktop, then there is nothing to add to your PCs because all desktops come with built-in wireless network adapters now. Second, the performance of wireless, especially the newest 802.11n-capable products, is also nearly at parity with wired networks, or at least to the point where for most common office tasks your users won't know the difference. Finally, there is better management software to handle administrative tasks, and better encryption software to protect your wireless networks from the hacker-in-the-parking-lot-with-a-laptop scenario (HITPLWALS).

Think I am kidding about HITPLWALS? I was recently visiting the Dallas Cowboys new stadium and talking to their IT manager about this: while the stadium is barely open for business, they have detected six different HITPLWALS attacks over the past several months as they have finished construction. Their wireless network will cover not only the interior of the stadium but the nearby parking lot fields as well. Now granted your business may not be trying to blanket the better part of a small city with your wireless network, but still this is something to worry about. This is why you use encryption, to keep those prying eyes and keyboards away.

Wireless networking means you can take your network infrastructure with you when your business expands (or contracts) and you need to move into new space. And you have the flexibility to put workstations where it makes sense, rather than where you can reach with a set of cables. You also can do most of the infrastructure yourself, without having to pay for specialized electricians and construction workers.

So where do you get started? First, do a census of what networking adapters you have in your current PCs and whether any of them support 11n wireless protocols. If a majority of them do, all the better. If not, you will have to make do with the older 11g standards for your PCs.

Second, look at how many wireless PCs you need to support and where they are located around your office. Unlike many networking products, it doesn't make a bit of difference what operating system they are running, but if you have older versions of XP (or even pre-XP Windows), you will have some trouble running some of the newer encryption protocols.

You probably don't want to connect every device that you have in your business wirelessly. Shared printers, network file servers, and other network devices such as cameras or IP phones are better left as wired connections, provided you can reach them with cabling.

Third, decide whether you need one or more wireless access points. Things get complicated when you go to more than one AP, but if you can serve your entire population from one that is best. The 11n products have the widest range, which is another reason to use them. If you are stuck with 11g, then take a look at the Linksys Wireless-G Range Expander product here and see if that will help.

We'll talk about where to locate your wireless access points and what kind of wireless access point device to buy in another column. In the meantime, start thinking about cutting the cable and looking at what wireless networks can do for your business.

David Strom is a former editor-in-chief of Network Computing, Tom's Hardware.com, and DigitalLanding.com and an independent network consultant, blogger, podcaster and professional speaker based in St. Louis. He can be reached at david@strom.com.

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David Strom

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