The world around us is going wireless; we stream music and movies from our home PCs to any room in the house, we can play music from our phones on car stereos and we can go to any number of public places and hook up to the internet.
But one place has stayed resolutely wired: the enterprise. Yes, many offices these days will have Wi-Fi but often it is reserved for senior management or visitors. Even if it is available for all workers, the connection is rarely the most reliable.
It is easy enough to see why enterprises want to remain wired – control and security, reliability and speed are the primary benefits of using physical connections. It is also relatively cost-effective, as the price of cabling – even at the lengths needed to cover an average office – is pretty cheap.
If a physical connection is needed to access the corporate network, the business is in full control of who and what gets online. While this has obvious security benefits of keeping unauthorised visitors out of your network, it also means your network will not be overloaded with non-business critical traffic.
Another bonus with a wired connection is the speed and reliability they offer, way more so than a wireless infrastructure. For businesses that regularly need to move a lot of data around, a wired set-up is the best way to go.
Benefits of wireless connection
While a physical infrastructure may be good from a management point of view and offer cheap deployment, having all those wires running throughout a building can be costly and awkward to maintain.
For example, if a business increases its workforce, all those new workers will need physical connections at their desk – connections that will need to be manually set up. Any breakages in the wired connection will also have to be manually fixed as there is no software solution to a broken Ethernet pin.
With the explosion in mobile devices over the past few years – Apple alone has sold around 100 million iPads since the tablet was introduced in 2010 – many workers are bringing their own devices into the office.
It is vital these employees have access to the corporate network to get the most out of them, and that means giving them wireless access. As well as being able to use their own devices, wireless infrastructure means freedom to move around the office, from desk to desk or meeting room to meeting room.
A wireless network is also neater, getting rid of all those unsightly cables that usually run around an office.
Disadvantages of wireless connection
But while enabling workers to use their own devices at work, connect up with the corporate network and move around the building brings obvious productivity benefits, it also causes huge headaches for the IT department from a security point of view.
The threat of malware getting onto the corporate network through a compromised device is one particular issue. If the mobile or tablet is owned by the business, security is obviously easier to take care of – but employee-owned devices are another question, as most are not protected.
Prior to allowing workers to connect their personal device to the wireless network, it is important for a business to ensure employees are aware of the risks. Updating security policies to reflect changing ownership is one good step, but educating employees through initiatives such as workshops is vital.
There are other threats to a wireless enterprise. Your network will now extend beyond the physical walls of the office, giving attackers another potential route into the business.
All that critical corporate data is now flying across the airwaves, and if your wireless network is not secured to the same extent as your wired infrastructure, it could very easily end up in the wrong hands.
This means elements such as authentication, intrusion detection, prevention, reporting and security event management (SEM) must be included in the security set-up of a wireless infrastructure. It is also worth pointing out more simple measures – such as changing the default SSID and password to a more secure one – can be very effective.
Beyond the security implications there are other drawbacks to wireless connections. Speeds are much slower than with a wired connection and the signals can be affected by outside influences, such as walls and floors, as well as other electronic items.
Another issue is the range offered by wireless access points. Not only can these be limited in terms of how far the signal travels, but the signal can also fade the further away from it you are. This means to ensure full, reliable coverage across a building, a business must install plenty of access points, driving up the cost of the installation.
Legacy infrastructure and mixed environments
There are pros and cons to having a wireless and a wired enterprise and it is fair to say that wireless becoming the norm is still some way off. For example, there is too much legacy infrastructure in place to rip it out and replace it with a wireless set up.
A combination of wired and wireless is the way forward, at least for now. That way a business can satisfy the needs of its mobile workers and ensure all security, control and reliability requirements are met.
Having a mixed environment does not need to mean a nightmare from a management point of view. Cisco, for example, recently unveiled its Unified Access platform, which brings together wired and wireless connections in one switch. The 5760 Unified Access WLAN controller enables wireless connections to be managed on top of existing wired infrastructure.
Juniper Networks also integrates wireless LANs with existing wired infrastructure, giving businesses the best of both worlds.
Managing both together means businesses can run the same policies across the wired and wireless infrastructure, meaning business will see the benefit of having both while, hopefully, reducing the negatives associated with either installation.