Are corporations hitting a wall with WiFi networks?
At first, employees brought their smartphones to work, and to save money on their own voice and data plans, they probably used the corporate WiFi for calls and Internet access. Then, they started bringing their iPads and other tablets in, and they, too, used WiFi. According to some estimates, 90 percent of the tablets sold in the United States use WiFi rather than cellular.
Today, the average user carries three mobile devices, and by 2016, they will carry closer to seven, according to ZK Research.
As enterprises embrace these devices, they’ll be running more than email and web browsers. Corporations will eventually deploy mission-critical applications that will require even more bandwidth.
Will there be enough capacity and performance on the corporate WiFi network? Some vendors are warning that corporate IT will soon hit a performance wall.
Xirrus, which sells high-performance wireless networks, says many corporations are unprepared for the coming strain on their WiFi. Ethernet LANs typically support 200 to 300 megabits per second, whereas wireless LANs can handle only two to three megabits per second, Shane Buckley, Xirrus CEO, told me in an interview. Additionally, tablets use a lower-power signal than laptops, so supporting them requires more WiFi access points with stronger signals. Finally, WiFi performance degrades as more people share the network. "Have you ever wondered why your iPad runs better at home than in the office?" Buckley asked.
Mobile security vendor Blue Coat Systems recently tracked an employee with an iPhone and an iPad to see how much bandwidth the mobile devices used. Over a two-week period, the bandwidth impact on the corporate network was more than 39GB. The company points out that apps and operating system updates, as well as cloud backups, require a WiFi connection, and claims that “a single BYOD device can easily overwhelm network bandwidth with one click.”
This could become a huge problem for unprepared IT departments, said Buckley. In the old days, if a laptop user couldn’t get a good WiFi connection, IT just told him to go plug into the Ethernet network. You can’t do that with phones and tablets.
Despite what these vendors say, however, I haven’t heard of enterprise IT departments running into big WiFi bottlenecks yet. Will they? Just this week, it was reported that Barclays planned to buy 8,500 iPads for front-end branch staff in what is thought to be the largest corporate tablet deployment to date outside of the education sector. It’s not clear how many will be used in each branch, and it will be interesting to see if the company runs into any bottlenecks, especially as more retail customers with smartphones and tablets start coming through its doors expecting to access their information via WiFi.
Has your IT department run into this problem yet? Do you even think it’s a problem -- or are vendors just hyping it? If it's a real problem, what’s the best solution?
— Tam Harbert is a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C.