A steady stream of sophisticated mobile applications has been flowing into enterprise infrastructures for years. But now, mobility is poised to fundamentally alter the essence of how businesses operate. Thanks to the new 802.11ac standard, wireless networks are faster than traditional wired communications for desktop PCs, which is creating what some industry observers have dubbed the “Gen Mobile” workforce.
To understand what makes this next-generation workforce different and what IT managers must do to fully capitalize on the latest wireless technologies, BizTech correspondent Alan Joch spoke with Dominic Orr, a leader in the networking industry. For nearly a decade, Orr has served as president and CEO of Aruba Networks, which provides wireless solutions for organizations across all industries. (HP this week announced that it will acquire Aruba as part of its efforts to extend service offerings for the enterprise.)
Before Aruba, Orr had spent time devoted to network and communications systems at a number of companies. He also is a member of the board of directors of Inveneo, a nonprofit that helps organizations supporting underserved communities in the developing world with information and communication technologies.
BIZTECH: Mobility and wireless networking have long been important for businesses of all sizes. What new opportunities should they be mindful of now?
ORR: We’re seeing the rise of next-generation work environments, driven by what I think of as the Gen Mobile workforce, a logical extension of Gen X and Gen Y — workers defined by their preference for mobility in terms of both the devices they use and their approach to work.
This new era is exciting because as we move to mobile-first, cloud-first architectures, end users are seeing increased access to all types of information. And, in turn, they’re enhancing the responsiveness of their organizations in serving customers.
BIZTECH: How is this trend materializing in the organizations you work with?
ORR: More and more SMEs [small and midsized enterprises] are taking advantage of wireless resources to let people work securely from anywhere, which can reduce capital expenses for their organizations.
For example, thanks to office sharing and home offices, community-oriented, social, Gen Mobile work environments can reduce real estate costs, sometimes by 30 percent or more — while also improving responsiveness. Now, more large enterprises are realizing that this approach isn’t only for SMEs and are enabling their employees to work this way too.
BIZTECH: What must IT managers do to ensure their wireless infrastructures can support these changes?
ORR: When you think about wireless, you should think about the air, and how it can be made to serve your business needs.
Keeping this in mind, next-generation wireless networks must have four important characteristics: stable air, secure air, smart air and simple air. In a nutshell, the way to evaluate your current wireless infrastructure and to understand how to make it even better is to focus on these four important concepts.
BIZTECH: Let’s drill into each one, starting with stable air.
ORR: Stable air means reliable wireless services are available whenever and wherever people need them to do their work. Without it, organizations cannot achieve the potential of today’s mobility applications. The latest Wi-Fi standard delivers Gigabit performance, which is faster than a typical wired connection. It’s now possible to deliver a stable connectivity environment, even with a large number of users and bandwidth-rich applications. And, wireless drives down infrastructure costs.
In addition to achieving stability, network administrators must ensure that all the devices and data on the network are safe. Many people still believe that wireless networks are less secure than wired networks. The fact is, a properly designed wireless network is much more secure because of the inherent access controls and encryption technologies that are now available.
How do you secure an employee versus a guest? A client versus an executive? A supplier versus a prospect? The key is policy: Who are you? What device are you using? Where are you? And what applications are you using? With this mobility context, security policies can be defined and enforced using a next-generation wireless network.
BIZTECH: But you’re also saying network managers must go beyond these two areas.
ORR: Stable and secure air are the table stakes. Every IT manager should force their wireless networking vendors to explain how they are stepping up to provide these types of capabilities in their wireless solutions. Building on that foundation, organizations need smart air, which means using next-generation wireless equipment tools to sniff out the types of communications being transmitted. Are the data packets coming from the CEO on a video conference call? Or perhaps they’re an audio stream from a very important customer who’s in the building? Or is it an email, which isn’t subject to the same strict quality of service considerations?
At any point in time, the network must not only transport data packets but also give priority to those that are the most time-sensitive. Smart air provides the high-quality user experience required for sophisticated mobile apps. When you can deliver rich voice and video experiences over the air, again you can save significant system and infrastructure costs.
BIZTECH: What is simple air, and why is it important?
ORR: Simple air keeps advanced wireless technologies from being too difficult to implement and manage.
To accomplish this, network management applications use interfaces that let managers select the performance goals they need, while providing underlying automation to achieve those results. This is particularly important for enterprises that need to manage multiple branches without onsite IT staffs available to keep everything running.
Aruba’s cloud-based management system, for example, enables administrators to manage hundreds — even thousands — of mobile devices from one central location and constantly monitor their activities.
BIZTECH: What are the biggest benefits of the new 802.11ac standard for Gen-Mobile organizations?
ORR: 802.11ac is one of the most significant developments in the history of Wi-Fi. This is about Gigabit Wi-Fi, which I mentioned earlier. There’s already an alphabet soup of standards — 802.11a, b, g, n — but 802.11ac is a leap forward from these previous technologies, all of which merely provided a good way to supplement traditional wired Ethernet networks.
With 802.11ac, wireless has become faster than wired technology to the desktop, which means that for the first time, wireless can be a replacement for Ethernet.
BIZTECH: In addition to the new opportunities in wireless today, what challenges do IT managers face?
ORR: Some industry projections forecast that a full 70 percent of network traffic will be coming from mobile devices running on Microsoft Windows Mobile, Android or Apple iOS platforms. It’s important to remember that mobility increases the density of devices.
When the world consisted only of desktop PCs, IT managers knew that if there were 20 employees in an office, there would be a similar number of devices for the network to support. But today, that same size office may be running 60 devices, counting notebooks, smartphones and tablets. Enterprises need networking technologies with elastic capacity that adjusts to changing densities.
Support for roaming is also very important. People continuously use devices as they walk from one office to another. So 802.11ac coupled with network management technology that looks at the entire set of access points as a single system allows administrators to benefit from seamless roaming.
And because mobile workers are constantly on the move, network administrators must be able to determine where the traffic is coming from, who’s sending it and the kind of device that each worker is using. Depending on the organization’s security policies, these factors could influence what data and applications each person is allowed to access.
Enterprises may not need Ethernet as the primary network connection anymore — but only if they implement a stable, secure, smart and simple wireless infrastructure. 802.11ac and advanced management solutions are the technologies that make this possible.