Born to be Wireless

by Alan Joch

Most businesses don’t need to be sold on the benefits of networks. It’s the hassles of physically wiring together printers, communications servers, and other network devices that can stop even the most enthusiastic would-be network manager cold. For many growing companies, the never-ending modifications necessary to keep up with new network equipment and the comings and goings of staff cast a pall over any file sharing, communications, and resource-sharing advantages of networked computers.

Fortunately, there’s hope for the wire weary. Today’s wireless LAN technology, using either infrared light beams (IR) or radio frequencies (RF), are more economical, secure, and reliable than ever ­ which means you no longer have to crawl around baseboards or balance precariously on ladders to get everyone strung together.

Beyond the convenience of being wire-free, IR and RF networks offer all the advantages of their metal-thread cousins. Multiple people can share printers and Internet accounts, saving the expense of doling out money for individual hardware and ISP accounts. And when the graphics designer needs to move to the other side of the building to be closer to the marketing people, a wireless network connection automatically follows. A business can even keep the messages flowing to newly rented space in an adjacent building, thanks to RF products that send data on a thin light beam from one building to another.

Best of all, there’s no need to scrap the existing LAN to add some new wireless nodes to the current infrastructure: IR and RF hubs automatically route data along traditional and wireless devices with no magic required on your part. The biggest payoff: Everyone in the company is working with the latest sales stats, strategic memos, and high-tech services because the whole company is connected to all of the central business data at the same time.

The Right Wireless
The type of wireless technology a business chooses will depend on a number of factors, including the type of data the network typically transports, how far information will be zapped, and what kind of physical space the company calls home. With IR, users point-and-shoot data from one device to another. For example, slide a PC Card with an IR transmitter into a notebook computer and data can be carried on invisible light to a target device, such as a desktop PC, printer, or communications server. Depending on the IR equipment used, the wireless link may be a single thin beam of light or a bath of diffuse light.

Keep in mind, neither IR option is a match for walls or any other large, solid objects, which will stop the data flow in its tracks. The single-beam approach is effective for networking two buildings a mile or less apart with a clear line of sight. Able to carry text, audio, and video data, targeted beams blast data at a speedy 155Mbps. Diffuse-light IR, on the other hand, is great for open floor plans filled with cubicles: Data bounces off the ceiling and lands on the target without having to hit a bull’s eye with a tiny light beam. The downside, however, is speed. Most diffused-light networks reach data rates of only 2 to 4Mbps, less than half of the typical 10Mbps found on a wired Ethernet LAN.

Like Superman’s X-ray vision, RF networks aren’t stymied by physical obstructions such as office walls. Most common for LANs are two permutations of spread-spectrum, an RF variety originally developed by the military. Frequency-hopping spread-spectrum (FHSS) is a narrow-band technique that jumps around frequencies near 2.4GHz in patterns that a manufacturer has pre-programmed into matching transmitters and receivers. This keeps the data unintelligible to receivers without the proper programming, and cuts down on the chance that data packets will collide with transmissions from nearby RF networks. FHSS, however, sends data at slow speeds equivalent to IR.

A faster alternative is direct-sequence spread-spectrum (DSSS), the latest versions of which can catapult data through the air at a maximum of 11Mbps, or slightly faster than a hard-wired Ethernet network. For businesses that need to send humongous database or graphics files, DSSS is the best RF choice. If relatively small, plain text files or e-mail messages are the norm, FHSS is a cheaper alternative. Note that FHSS and DSSS products don’t work together, so you can’t mix and match.

If your wireless network will be transporting sensitive financial files and human-resource records, rest assured that most RF products offer at a minimum 64-bit encryption ­ the level that’s standard on Web browsers ­ to keep data unintelligible to unauthorized recipients. Some products, such as Lucent Technologies’ WaveLAN Turbo family, can support 128-bit encryption, the type used to pass electronic-commerce transactions over the Internet. IR networking security is aided by the fact that light waves don’t penetrate walls, so people outside the office or building can’t intercept important files.

Setup Facts and Figures
For close-by communications ­ whether via IR or RF ­ between a notebook computer and a server or laser printer, users need only two or three pieces of hardware. The first is a transmitter, which slips into the PC Card slot of a portable computer or an empty bus connector of a desktop machine. Budget anywhere from about $100 to $500 for RF cards, depending on whether you want 2Mbps or 11Mbps performance. IR equivalents often run $100 or less. The second component, the receiver, connects to a server or other network device. Again, affordable IR versions go for $100 or less, while RF transmitters may cost $200 to $500.

Fast growing companies may need additional hardware called access points to help staff communicate over distances of more than 500 feet. Access points, which are hard-wired into a network, also may require the skills of a consultant or reseller to install. Set aside between $700 to $1,000 for this hardware in RF installations. IR versions cost less than $100.

There is a wide selection of wireless gear out there with a full range of features and prices. And whether you run a small office and need to get only a handful of PCs networked quickly and inexpensively, or you run a larger firm with satellite offices and an ever-changing roster, there’s a wireless network out there that will increase operational efficiency.

No matter what kind of space you’re in or what kind of data you are transmitting, there is a wireless option out there to get the job done. And won’t it will be nice to get the office networked without tripping over all those darned wires in the process?

Small Business Computing Staff
Small Business Computing Staff
Small Business Computing addresses the technology needs of small businesses, which are defined as businesses with fewer than 500 employees and/or less than $7 million in annual sales.

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