by September 17, 2003 0 comments

It’s happy days again for IT managers, whose budgets had been slashed because of the slowdown. A recovery is on. But remember; let us not go overboard like we did in the past. 

The markets
Wireless networking, Gigabit Ethernet and network management is the trio making waves in the networking segment. Wi-Fi equipment has become more affordable and versatile. It can also be implemented by smaller organizations that don’t want to invest in laying cables, etc. It can also be implemented by large enterprises that need to extend their existing networks either for their mobile users, or for all the new users they employ. There are other factors behind the growing popularity of wireless LANs as well. Most notebook vendors for instance are bundling PCMCIA wireless LAN cards in their products or giving it separately at very attractive prices. The recently launched Intel Centrino for laptops also has a wireless LAN component built-in, and vendors have already introduced Centrino-based laptops. 

Fiber vs copper
This is one debate that has been going on for some time now. It was broadly expected that as the need for network bandwidth increases, fiber would replace copper. But that has not happened. Firstly, fiber prices are still many times that of copper. And copper is proving to be more resilient that previously thought of. It has so far been able to take on more bandwidth. So, while Gigabit to the desktop is happening, fiber to the desktop is still a long time away.

Beyond wireless, other networking hardware equipment such as switches, and routers are becoming cheaper. Most networking hardware vendors are bringing out Gigabit Ethernet products, which in turn is driving down their pricing. So now the issue is how to implement Gigabit Ethernet on existing networks. Internet bandwidth has also become more affordable, fuelling the growth of Internet linked applications, such as Web services and Internet data centers. 

Network management has moved beyond SNMP. Today there’s a much wider variety of network management software to handle various aspects of a network. There’s asset management software, help-desk management SW, storage management SW and so on.

Technology Trends
Worldwide, wireless is being implemented like there’s no tomorrow. New wireless standards are being developed and mature ones being ratified. Many vendors are developing and launching wireless and associated products. On the implementation front, the worldwide trend has been towards building more public hot spots. Starbucks for instance has Wi-Fi enabled its 1200 coffee outlets across the US, and Marriott added high-speed wireless access across 400 hotels in Germany, UK and the US. There have been a few similar cases in India as well, but here, the focus seems to be more towards adding WiFi in enterprise networks. 

The government has deregulated the 2.4 GHz frequency band for indoor use of 802.11b standard compliant equipment. The standard works in the 2.4 GHz band, and offers up to 11 Mb/sec. So companies can implement ‘b’ products within their networks without obtaining a license. Another good news is the ratification of the 802.11g standard, which offers bandwidth of up to 54 Mb/sec in the same 2.4 GHz band. This one also works in the 2.4 GHz band, and most 802.11b equipment can be upgraded to this standard, giving companies the flexibility to add more bandwidth as and when they need it. 

Gigabit Ethernet over copper has been around since 1999, but it became affordable only recently. Today many desktop motherboards are coming with integrated Gigabit Ethernet, and it has almost become a standard in servers. Gigabit to the desktop has started happening, though still in niche areas.

Besides network management, another mantra, far more interesting and complex is making the rounds. Self-healing, self-configuring and self-managing networks. The key drivers behind this are IBM, HP, and Sun. IBM calls it autonomic computing, HP calls it the adaptive Enterprise, and Sun terms it as the N1 initiative. To explain the concept, let’s take large servers for example. Today, if an IT manager were to decide which enterprise class server to buy, he would probably not be able to choose among different brands based just on technology. All of them have the same standard components, conform to similar standards, and would probably serve the purpose equally well too. So where does the difference lie? Bargains and better deals aside, it could be this initiative that will skew the preference. Using this technology, a server farm running some mission-critical application, would be able to automatically detect routine problems and fix them without manual intervention.

This could be something worthwhile for an IT manager, as it would save him a lot of time, effort and even money. Taking the argument further, suppose most elements on a network could be managed like this through software. It would make life a lot easier for the IT manager.

Implementation Challenges
While the wireless networking market is growing, it has its share of problems. The two biggest issues here are security and management. Most wireless equipment comes with built-in WEP security, which is not sufficient. A new security standard called 802.11i has been introduced and is effective, but can be a costly affair. Managing a wireless network can become a nightmare as it grows, because each wireless access point has to be managed individually. New technologies like wireless LAN switches have recently been introduced to address both the manageability and security issues.

There can be issues when implementing Gigabit Ethernet on a network, and these are mostly related to the cabling. At such high-speed data transfers, chances of mis-synchronization due to bad cabling can be very high. This can cause packets to drop, and reduce Gigabit Ethernet’s performance by as much as 50%, meaning 500 Mb/sec. Therefore, while implementing, you need to check not only whether your cabling can handle Gigabit speeds, but also how well can it handle it. 

What’s Next
It’s all about standards in this industry. The Cat 6 standard for instance, was finalized last year. More standardization can be expected thsi year. 

By Anil Chopra

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