Headquartered in Thousand Oaks, Calif., Xirrus is a privately held company that designs and manufactures high-performance wireless networking products. The company's family of enterprise-grade Xirrus Wi-Fi products enables wireless connectivity for small businesses as well as Fortune 500 companies.
"My counsel would be going back and take a look at similar revolutions with IT these [Wi-Fi] devices are coming, and you can either be ready for them or playing catch-up."
Attendants at Interop Las Vegas 2011 who logged onto the Wi-Fi network did so via network equipment from Xirrus, the official Wi-Fi provider for the event. The company tells me that just 20 of its Wi-Fi "Arrays" were deployed to cover an area spanning approximately a million square feet and thronging with thousands of visitors. Another of the company's prominent customers includes Microsoft, which depends on equipment from Xirrus at its developer and partner conferences where it has seen as many as 3,000 developers connected simultaneously. Clearly, Xirrus is a leading player when it comes to large-scale and high-density Wi-Fi deployments.
I had the pleasure of discussing the current state of Wi-Fi in business with Dirk Gates, the chief executive officer and a co-founder of Xirrus. Not your typical career CEO, Gates, who holds a B.S. in Electrical Engineering from California State University at Northridge on top of an MBA from Pepperdine University, founded Xircom back in 1988. He had led Xircom to achieve revenues of $500 million with a market cap in excess of $2 billion prior to its acquisition by Intel Corp in 2001.
Change Is in the Air
Given the proliferation of tablet devices largely driven by Apple's iPad, I was naturally curious about the outlook for Wi-Fi usage moving forward. Moreover, all new laptops and smartphones sold today come with Wi-Fi capabilities, which has been pushing demand for WLAN (Wireless LAN) hardware.
Asserting that there is going to be a massive change in how people will use Wi-Fi, Gates opted for an anecdote to illustrate the impending demand. Xirrus did a Wi-Fi deployment at Carnegie Mellon University in the U.S. three years ago, says Gates, with 4,000 unique MAC addresses in the dormitories alone. "In just two years, the number of unique MAC addresses had expanded to 7,000 unique MAC addresses," says Gates, noting that: "I went back just a couple of weeks ago, and saw 13,000 unique MAC addresses for the same number of students. This gives an average of 3 [MAC address] per students." And with Ethernet access now switched off by default, less than a hundred students have asked for continued Ethernet access for printers and things.
So while Wi-Fi has been a "nice to have" technology in the past, it is clear that attitudes and needs are quickly changing. Alluding to his earlier analogy, Gates observed: "All these [college] kids will be going out into the work force with an average of 3 Wi-Fi devices and they will be expecting Wi-Fi in their workplace."
But Is It Reliable Enough?
One recurring complaint that we hear about Wi-Fi coverage at large conferences or conventions is slow network access speeds or intermittent connectivity. When quizzed on this, Gates explained that businesses need to "get smarter" in their understanding of Wi-Fi technology.
The difference between what we use at home is that home equipment has been designed for maximum coverage and range. That may not be the best option in the office however. "Businesses should not aim for attaining maximum range," Gates said. He elaborated: "2.4GHz is fine for the home, but it only has three usable channels. Five GHz gives me 24 usable channels instead." With this in mind, enterprises should favor smaller "cell sizes" and more of them to boot.
On the reliability front, Gates suggested comparing the evolution of Ethernet and Wi-Fi as a guide, observing that we are actually going through a similar sort of process in the maturing of Wi-Fi. "There was a time when bringing Ethernet's port density and resiliency was an utmost priority to meet the five 9s," Gates told me. "When you look at Wi-Fi, it is what we are seeing now, which suggests to me that business-grade APs [access points] can indeed make the grade."
Without offering any names, Gates let slip that the wireless radios of WLAN hardware are "well known to crash." And therein resides the reason why businesses may want to purchase business-grade APs from reputable vendors instead of consumer-level ones in order to save a few pennies.
Replacing Wired Networks
So can Wi-Fi replace wired networks? Gates thinks that the data rates and the resilience are in place. "So yes, properly deployed," he affirmed, "Wi-Fi can replace wired networks today." Gates emphasized the importance of proper deployment though, and ticked off a quick checklist of what that might entail. This ranges from the use of 5GHz band, proper securing with WPA2 and AES encryption, use of integrated threat sensors and the presence of systems designed to constantly monitor radio health.
Gates also pointed out how we're seeing the wired Ethernet market contract for the first time. He was probably referring to IDC's Worldwide Quarterly Enterprise Networks Tracker report, which for the first time showed the worldwide Ethernet switch market experiencing a year-over-year decline of 12.5 percent in the first quarter of 2011. "I'm going to suggest that if we go forward in three years, and we look back, we're going to find that it's due to the growth of Wi-Fi," noted Gates.
Ironically, there is a trend of under-provisioning Wi-Fi, with businesses setting up as few Wi-Fi APs as possible. This appears incongruous when compared to the practice of overprovisioning wired Ethernet, and in Gate's own words, "with half of the Ethernet ports ever shipped probably lying unused somewhere." Fortunately, this attitude is changing, and senior executives and IT managers are coming to the realization that their networks could soon be overwhelmed with an influx of wireless network devices.
In closing, organizations still on the fence about deploying Wi-Fi may want to pay some heed to what Gates has to say. "My counsel would be going back and take a look at similar revolutions with IT these [Wi-Fi] devices are coming, and you can either be ready for them or playing catch-up. It's time now to seriously consider deploying well-provisioned Wi-Fi."