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Look Ma, No Cables: Wireless Networking for Small and Medium Businesses

Put aside your assumptions about wireless networks and properly evaluate whether they’re right for your business.

Some businesses view the adoption of wireless networks as the equivalent of riding a bicycle with no hands. If the point is to get from point A to point B, why risk adoption of a less secure, flashy method of travel? Indeed, local area networks (LANs) work well for many small and medium businesses, and wireless LANs (WLANs) are not right for everyone. However, it’s important to set aside vague assumptions about wireless networks and properly evaluate whether they’re right for your business.

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A WLAN connects users to the Internet as well as to computers, servers, and other peripheral devices in the network, using high-frequency radio waves instead of copper and fiber optic cables. With wireless networks, users within range of an access point (a small radio communications device) gain continuous, high-speed access to the Internet, e-mail, server-based data, and more, using anything from a PDA to a laptop computer.

What are the advantages?

Wireless networks offer several general advantages over wired networks. The first is obvious: no cables. Wireless networks are easier to set up, largely because cables are not involved, and WLANs handle site moves, office rearrangements, and additional users more easily than their wired counterparts. Fortunately, the lack of cables does not translate to a lack of compatibility or security. WLANs can work in conjunction with your existing servers and other network devices, ensuring the same type of performance and security that exists on wired networks.

Wireless networks also support mobility in exciting, even revolutionary ways, that make office walls seem like old-world conventions. Employees, customers, consultants, visitors, and others can access the network from anywhere within the coverage area–conference rooms, warehouses, break areas, etc.–not just from isolated desktops. Users in these varied locations can be more productive, accessing updated information, sending or receiving files, and exchanging e-mails and instant messages quickly and easily over the network.

And that’s just what happens in the office. At remote locations, like home offices, hotspots, and field offices, employees and others can use virtual private networks (VPNs) to tap securely into the office WLAN and the information stored on servers. By creating secure channels between the outside user and the main office’s wireless network, VPNs enable users to access updated information such as price lists and delivery schedules, and transmit data from wherever they are. For many businesses, the result is improved customer service and increased productivity from mobile employees.

Who needs wireless networking?

Wireless networks spark the imagination. They encourage new ways to communicate and collaborate, and they inspire ideas about how to make the traditional office space more dynamic. The question is which small and medium businesses would benefit from these changes to conventional office practices.

To decide whether wireless networking is right for your business, it helps to think about how work gets done now and whether it could be done more efficiently with a WLAN. For instance, consider these questions:

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  • Would meetings be more productive if employees, clients, and others at the meetings could access and share networked information?
  • Do mobile employees–or even employees down the hall or in a nearby warehouse–need immediate access to updated information, such as inventories and shipping status?
  • Do you struggle to find places to connect new or temporary employees to your LAN?
  • Do you have sales representatives or other mobile employees who sometimes need to come into the office and access the network?
  • Would employees be more productive if they could access the network while they’re away from their desk, such as when they’re at home, visiting with clients, or giving presentations at other offices?

Who can help?

The most important thing to know about setting up and deploying a wireless network is that–although the process is not overly complex or costly–it is best to consult a trusted adviser or vendor. Such expert assistance can allay the fear many businesses have of installing a WLAN that is not secure. An adviser can ensure proper security protocols and monitoring methods are in place.

Additionally, an adviser can walk you through the many basic issues you should examine when determining the basic design of your WLAN. For instance, you’ll want to consider:

  • Number of users
  • Coverage area
  • Preferred network speed
  • Types of devices that will be used (PDAs, VoIP phones, laptops, etc.) and the priority they have when connecting to your server
  • Future needs

After carefully evaluating these and other concerns, you and your adviser can plan an effective deployment, which will include deciding which WLAN standard–from 802.11a to 802.11i–best meets your application requirements and usage patterns.

It’s your call

In the end, deciding whether to invest in wireless technology should, like most business decisions, be based primarily on the anticipated return on your investment. Businesses should evaluate the cost of implementing WLANs and compare those costs with the long-term benefits, including increased productivity and decreased installation costs.

So, is it time for your company to go wireless? The answer depends on the unique characteristics of your business and your anticipated ROI. What can be said with certainty, though, is the time has arrived to weigh the pros and cons and make the call about whether wireless networking is a smart investment for your business.

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