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Is it time to cut the Ethernet access cable?

Pervasive WLANs leave costly wired ports idle

By , Network World
May 01, 2009 08:39 AM ET

Network World - A range of companies with wireless LANs are discovering that 50% to 90% or more of Ethernet ports now go unused, because Wi-Fi has become so prevalent.

They look at racks of unused switches, ports, Ethernet wall jacks, the cabling that connects them all, the yearly maintenance charges for unused switches, electrical charges and cooling costs. So why not formally drop what many end users have already discarded -- the Ethernet cable?

"There's definitely a rightsizing going on," says Michael King, research director, mobile and wireless, for Gartner. "By 2011, 70% of all net new ports will be wireless. People are saying, 'we don't need to be spending so much on a wired infrastructure if no one is using it."

Many of these issues were predicted in fall 2007 by Burton Group Analyst Paul DeBeasi, in a report provocatively titled "The end of Ethernet?" In it, he argued that the demand for mobility and the advent of 802.11n networks with shared throughput of 150M to 180Mbps would lead enterprises to cut the Ethernet access cord. (See our Clear Choice Test of four 802.11n vendors' gear.)

"We're struggling a bit to wrap our heads around what amounts to a pretty significant change in culture," says the lead wireless technologist for a big East Coast university, who requested anonymity. Cisco is the wired and wireless network vendor. Like many other schools, this one has a wired port for every student bed. Now, 80% to 90% of these ports are idle. "Many students are clueless about what to do with a patch cord to begin with. They grew up with wireless," he says. "So how do we react to the change, without shooting ourselves in the foot?"

No simple answers

More companies are debating that very question, as they face replacing older switching gear, or deciding on the switching infrastructure for new buildings. And there is no clear or simple answer.

Many are unconvinced that enterprise Wi-Fi networks, even the high-throughput draft 802.11n flavor, can offer the reliability, security, and bandwidth demanded by current applications. Others are equally convinced they can. Some insist that future IP-based television services require a wire; others are not so sure and wonder if IPTV justifies having hundreds of idle switches on yearly maintenance contracts, which can run hundreds of dollars per box.

"It depends on the application," says the CTO, who requested anonymity, of a one-thousand-bed hospital system in the southeast, with Cisco as the wired and wireless vendor. The WLAN supports several applications to facilitate clinical workflow, and a separate visitors' network. "But if you talk about 24/7 applications and critical access, everything from security to guaranteed access in a power outage…we're still building robust wired networks for that," he says.

"The question is: when can you consider wireless the primary network," says John Turner, Director for Networks and Systems, Brandeis University, Waltham, Mass., and an Aruba Networks WLAN site. Facing a tough cabling challenge in a new campus science building, Turner concluded that a mix of 802.11abg and 802.11n access points, with new Aruba software for optimizing radio signals, would adequately support most user access. The building was completed with less cabling and fewer switches than originally planned.

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