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Network World - Transitioning from the Wi-Fi-shy financial industry, Riverside Medical Center's CSO Erik Devine remembers his shock at the healthcare industry's wide embrace of the technology when he joined the hospital in 2011.
"In banking, Wi-Fi was almost a no-go because everything is so overly regulated. Wireless here is almost as critical as wired," Devine still marvels. "It's used for connectivity to heart pumps, defibrillators, nurse voice over IP call systems, surgery robots, remote stroke consultation systems, patient/guest access and more."
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To illustrate the level of dependence the organization has on Wi-Fi, Riverside Medical Center calls codes over the PA system -- much like in medical emergencies -- when the network goes down. "Wireless is such a multifaceted part of the network that it's truly a big deal," he says.
And getting bigger. Besides the fact that organizations are finding new ways to leverage Wi-Fi, workers have tasted the freedom of wireless, have benefited from the productivity boost, and are demanding increased range and better performance, particularly now that many are showing up with their own devices (the whole bring your own device thing). The industry is responding in kind, introducing new products and technologies, including gigabit Wi-Fi (see "Getting ready for gigabit Wi-Fi"), and it is up to IT to orchestrate this new mobile symphony.
"Traffic from wireless and mobile devices will exceed traffic from wired devices by 2017," according to the Cisco Visual Networking Index. While only about a quarter of consumer IP traffic originated from non-PC devices in 2012, non-PC devices will account for almost half of consumer IP traffic by 2017, Cisco says.
IT gets it, says Tony Hernandez, principal in Grant Thornton's business consulting practice. Wi-Fi is no longer an afterthought in IT build-outs. "The average office worker still might have a wired connection, but they also have the capability to use Wi-Fi across the enterprise," says Hernandez, noting the shift has happened fast.
"Five years ago, a lot of enterprises were looking at Wi-Fi for common areas such as lobbies and cafeterias and put that traffic on an isolated segment of the network," Hernandez says. "If users wanted access to corporate resources from wireless, they'd have to use a VPN."
Hernandez credits several advances for Wi-Fi's improved stature: enterprise-grade security; sophisticated, software-based controllers; and integrated network management.
Also in the mix: pressure from users who want mobility and flexibility for their corporate machines as well as the ability to access the network from their own devices, including smartphones, tablets and laptops.
Where some businesses have only recently converted to 802.11n from the not-too-distant past of 802.11a/b/g, they now have to decide if their next Wi-Fi purchases will support 802.11ac, the draft IEEE standard that addresses the need for gigabit speed. "The landscape is still 50/50 between 802.11g and 802.11n," Hernandez says. "There are many businesses with older infrastructure that haven't refreshed their Wi-Fi networks yet."
What will push enterprises to move to 802.11ac? Heavier reliance on mobile access to video such as videoconferencing and video streaming, he says.
David Heckaman, vice president of technology development at luxury hospitality chain Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group, remembers the exact moment he knew Wi-Fi had gained an equal footing with wired infrastructure in his industry.
A company had booked meeting room space at one of Mandarin Oriental's 30 global properties to launch its new mobile app and answered all the hotel's usual questions about anticipated network capacity demands. Not yet familiar with the impact of dense mobile usage, the IT team didn't account for the fallout when the 200-plus crowd received free Apple iPads to immediately download and launch the new app. The network crashed. "It was a slap in the face: What was good enough before wouldn't work. This was a whole new world," Heckaman says.
Seven to eight years ago, Wi-Fi networks were designed to address coverage and capacity wasn't given much thought. When Mandarin Oriental opened its New York City property in 2003, for example, IT installed two or three wireless access points in a closet on each floor and used a distributed antenna to extend coverage to the whole floor. At the time, wireless only made up 10% of total network usage. As the number climbed to 40%, capacity issues cropped up, forcing IT to rethink the entire architecture.