A New Age of Wireless

— April 24, 2007

Truly mobile, easy to install and consistent wireless access for the enterprise: A new player in the WLAN space wants to promise it all.

We're suggesting says David Confalonieri, VP of corporate marketing at Extricom, an enterprise WLAN company with a new vision of pervasive wireless, "that we can deploy WLANs as simply as you'd deploy wired access."

At first this doesn't sound like a radical idea--WiFi is old news--but the difficulties surrounding an enterprise WLAN deployment can extend well beyond the reasonable. Installing a pervasive wireless network in any market, from warehousing to education to office buildings, requires delicate planning with multiple stages of preparation. RF interference mapping and cell planning can take months, and then once the network is deployed, more time is needed to work out any bugs. In many environments interference issues, such as competing signals or even physical barriers, can shift and change from day to day, forcing IT staff to constantly maintain and tweak the system. Confalonieri likes to cite an instance where an enterprise had to hire three extra people just to manage 150 newly installed access points. Not a very compelling business case.

Problems notwithstanding, the march toward pervasive wireless deployments isn't slowing down. Craig Mathias, principal of the Farpoint Group, an advisory firm specializing in wireless and mobile, says he hasn't published research on WLANs in two years because, as he sees it, "WLANs are becoming default connectivity for the enterprise. There's no point in arguing about the numbers." And it's true, WiFi has revolutionized the way we work; as more people are freed from their desks, the demand grows for an always-connected environment. "We use the same technology at home, at work, on the streets, even internationally," says Mathias. "That's huge. There's no technology that will replace WiFi."

So while the course is set for WiFi, Extricom felt the issues around ease of use and deployment needed addressing. "Extricom was founded on the premise that when you take WLAN into a network environment you run into major technological difficulties," explains Gideon Rottem, Extricom's co-founder and CEO. "These limitations are so evident," continues Rottem, "we've had to create a language around them. We hear so much talk about black holes and that wireless is black magic."

Extricom has worked for the last five years in an effort to put some reliability into the magic of WiFi. Extricom's system differs from traditional WLAN architectures in that its access points are trimmed down to just the basic radio, and it has added a beefed-up central control switch that's responsible for every packet sent over the network. The packet controller automatically adjusts to interference issues across the network ensuring that packets are never dropped, lost or delayed.

Extricom maintains that this eliminates a common WLAN complaint, the need for frequent maintenance and retooling to eliminate holes in coverage and to maximize users' throughput speeds. With the packet-by-packet controller ensuring every bit of data ends up where it was intended, Extricom claims to have added a guarantee to enterprise wireless. "Our solution allows us to eliminate co-channel interference within the blanket [network]," claims Rottem. "The minute you eliminate co-channel interference between those access points, you've allowed the evolution of a true channel blanket technology."

Eliminating interference issues certainly eases the complications of deployment. "One of our customers is a hotel with 10 floors and about 200 rooms, in total about 300,000 square feet," says Confalonieri. "We plugged in the APs, plugged in the switch and basically had the whole deployment up in six hours." No RF mapping, no complicated cell planning, once the wires are in place, just plug it in, says Confalonieri, and it's up and running. As Mathias puts it, "No one gets up in the morning and says, 'I'm going to buy an architecture today.' They will get up in the morning and buy a solution." Extricom wants its WLAN to be an obvious choice.

It certainly was for the New York Software Industry Alliance (NYSIA), a trade association based in Manhattan, with a facility that is the nurturing home to numerous up-and-coming high-tech companies. With tenant companies that have rapidly fluctuating personnel and differing, specific connectivity needs, the NYSIA knew it had to unwire its 22,000 square feet of office space. But without a permanent IT staff, it couldn't see a way to manage a flexible WLAN installation and was going to settle for just guest access. Until it found Extricom. In two business days, Extricom had the first phase of the deployment, one floor and most of the conference rooms up and running. With phase one turning out to be such a success, the NYSIA went ahead and unwired the rest of the space and included a total rollout of VoWLAN phones to each tenant company. The solution has been in place for 18 months and has required almost no maintenance from IT, while providing uninterrupted, flexible, truly mobile wireless access to more than a dozen tenant companies in a space that is frequently changing.

All In the Apps
Making WLAN solutions more reliable, in turn makes them more useable, because how we use wireless is more important than its mere existence. "The business case [for wireless]," agrees Confalonieri, "is really in the applications." Extricom claims this is another area where its solution provides better functionality than traditional WLAN offerings.

"The problem with Cisco-type deployments is that they're using the radio for coverage," explains Rottem. "Whereas Extricom, by providing multiple blanket coverage everywhere, allows a much thicker use of applications. You can have one channel for multiple data uses, one channel for voice and another for video." This allows organizations such as the NYSIA to transition over to VoWLAN without the worry of calls being dropped or unreliable service.

Some applications further stretch the boundaries of wireless. Confalonieri offers the example of a company in Germany working on the latest roller coasters, whose cars reach speeds of up to 125 km/h. The company needed a way to control the fail-safe system on the brakes. "Here's an example of truly seamless mobility," explains Confalonieri. "Within our channel system there is no handoff and no overlay, so you have a continuity of the session. In the case of the roller coaster, as the car speeds down the track it is in constant communication with all of our APs mounted along the track." This constant communication ensures the coaster is working properly. If communication is lost for more than 300 milliseconds, the fail-safe triggers the emergency brakes. "This situation could only be solved by our technology," asserts Confalonieri.

Then there is the example of the airport that wanted to install closed-circuit TV cameras in the tramcars that connect the terminals. With a typical WLAN deployment, the airport security team found that when the connection was handed off from one AP to another, they'd wind up with 20 seconds of blank frames. "A delay in the handoff is not acceptable," emphasizes Confalonieri, "when you're talking about security measures in airports."

When pervasive, reliable networks become possible, the possible applications become very exciting. "There's all kinds of uses that are popping up like this to prove that the key driver is mobility," asserts Confalonieri. "WiFi has traditionally been designed for portability; you're stationary when you're working, then you close your laptop and go to the next hotspot. But more and more customers are saying we need mobility for voice, for situations like the roller coaster or RFID applications."

The new and diverse uses of these networks will keep businesses talking for the next 20 years, and Extricom wants to be a part of that conversation. "Extricom wants to say that wireless is no longer [about giving your] best effort," says Rottem, "but that wireless is guaranteed." And since wireless is guaranteed to be in our future, a usability guarantee will be a good thing to offer.

Teresa von Fuchs is a freelance writer living deep in the heart of Texas.


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