As the IEEE 802.11n standard approaches ratification, expected in two weeks, mainstream enterprises will become more serious about investing in the high-throughput Wi-Fi technology. The Wi-Fi Alliance, which certifies interoperability among 802.11-based products, has confirmed that certified Draft 2.0 802.11n products won't require changes to comply with the standard. Still, there are a few things to think about, from security to application planning.
First, advice to retailers: Try to use the standards ratification to justify upgrading old bar code scanners running Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP) or Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA). By definition, 802.11n requires the strongest form of security available for Wi-Fi. Existing devices, for sure, can be costly to replace and may seem to suit your applications just fine. But they don't, from a security standpoint, if you're still running WEP or WPA.
You may have heard that Japanese computer scientists reportedly have cracked the WPA encryption system used in Wi-Fi networks in less than a minute. WPA was created as a stopgap measure to enhance the weak WEP protocol in the earliest iterations of Wi-Fi networks. It falls far short, however, of WPA2, which requires a form of Advanced Encryption Standard. WPA2, a component of the 802.11i ratified security standard for Wi-Fi networks, is now required in products to be certified by the Wi-Fi Alliance and has been for more than three years.
In the wake of last year's theft of 40 million credit card numbers stolen via Wi-Fi hacks into the networks of TJX Companies and a string of other retailers, balancing the cost of investing in what will be standards-based, WPA2-capable devices against the cost of theft might make a strong business case.
It also behooves you to take a good, long look at what applications you might intend to run on the high-throughput Wi-Fi network. If you want the network for typical data applications, you can easily phase in your deployments through attrition, by swapping out old gear for 11n-capable gear as budgets and throughput requirements warrant (given 11n's backward-compatibility with 802.11a, b and g).
But first, determine your mobility strategy for voice and multimedia traffic. If you want your users to leverage voice-over-Wi-Fi in your building to save on cellular costs, it's less easy to use the phased approach.
“What we are finding is that customers transitioning to N are revisiting how they want to use network,” says Chris Kozup, senior manager of mobility solutions at Wi-Fi market leader Cisco. “Where they might have previously deployed Wi-Fi as a best-effort network, now they require increasing density,” to optimize for a multiservice environment.
Though this likely means a greater upfront capital investment, there's good news, too. Advanced and intuitive predictive modeling tools from Wi-Fi vendors and others, as well as new highly scalable performance and interoperability test equipment, are available to make figuring out what you need and where to install it much easier than ever before.