Can 4G wireless WAN links serve as more than a backup?

WAN managers have used 3G as a backup. But bandwidth gains and new IT services associated with 4G wireless WAN links have inspired optimism over its potential as a primary circuit.

Given the limitations of 3G, enterprises have regarded wireless wide area network (WAN) connections based on cellular technology as a backup connection, at best, for two- or three-person branches. At worst, they're a last resort in areas where no wired infrastructure exists. But the lower latency and immense bandwidth gains promised by 4G wireless technologies -- as well as the new IT services coming with them -- have inspired more optimism in WAN managers, who say 4G wireless WAN links have potential as a primary WAN connection.

"The more available bandwidth, the more it's going to be a viable option as an alternative [to wired connectivity]," said Kirk Allen, director of technology services at Shaklee Corp., a manufacturer and distributor of eco-friendly health, beauty and home products based in Pleasanton, Calif. "Time is going to tell … but with the advances that they're making in cellular technology, I could see that happening in the future."

When Shaklee recently opened a temporary warehouse in a region of Mexico where telecom infrastructure was limited, Allen anticipated endless battles with the local carrier over the flaky wired WAN connection it supplied. 

But then Virtela, which Allen has used for managed WAN services at his 13 global locations since 2006, offered him an ad hoc managed 3G service for the Mexican warehouse. Because the warehouse was a temporary location and had minor bandwidth needs, Allen saw little risk.

The wireless WAN link worked so much better than the wired connection that he kept 3G in place until the company closed the warehouse. Allen, who continues to use 3G for backup circuits or for temporary sites that need to be brought online quickly, said he would have to assess 4G further but is open-minded to using the next-generation cellular technology as a primary means of WAN connectivity.

"I wouldn't be opposed to using it at a location if we weren't doing a lot of processing from that location," he said.

Tim Hays, director of IT at Lextron Inc., an animal health product supplier in Greeley, Colo., has had a lukewarm experience in his limited use of 4G wireless WAN connectivity, but he remains optimistic about its potential.

Hays uses desktop Sprint Nextel Corp 3G Code-Division Multiple Access (CDMA)/4G WiMAX routers in two small branch offices and a desktop Verizon Wireless 3G CDMA/4G Long-Term Evolution (LTE) router in one of Lextron's labs.

It's not really ready for primetime. That said, I think that at some point we will replace the dedicated WAN technology that we have today with ... wireless.

Tim Hays
Director of IT, Lextron Inc.

Both serve as backup connections to the T1 lines that serve six to 12 users. Both have exhibited subpar 4G performance due to carriers' limited 4G footprints today and the poor handoff between 3G and 4G radios in the routers, Hays said.

"It's not really ready for primetime," he said. "That said, I think that at some point we will replace the dedicated WAN technology that we have today with something that is a lot more like wireless."

For now, Hays' answer to today's shortcomings of 4G networks and routers is the Mercury Adaptive Private Networking appliances from Talari Networks that he deployed in 13 of his larger branch offices. The appliances continuously monitor multiple WAN links -- including Internet connections -- for latency, jitter and packet loss. Rather than bonding multiple circuits or alternating between failovers, the appliances use all connections simultaneously, firing traffic over whichever link is faster at the moment.

"I envision the day when, as an IT thought leader, I no longer have to worry about remote site networks," Hays said.

Service providers work to improve 4G wireless WAN services

Although service providers aggressively market consumer 4G wireless, many are still ironing out the kinks in their 4G wireless WAN services.

Virtela, which runs managed IT services over a multi-carrier overlay network, recently announced a standard offering for 3G/4G managed WAN services. Previously, Virtela had supported customers over 3G/4G but on an ad hoc basis, according to Mark Weiner, senior vice president of marketing and product management at Virtela. The service was formalized as a product in response to customer demand, he said.

Virtela's approach eliminates the need for WAN managers to evaluate, negotiate contracts with and seek support from multiple wireless carriers around the world for global deployments. Instead, Virtela determines the best last-mile wireless link -- up to the edge of its overlay network -- for a given location. Once the traffic hits Virtela's network, Virtela monitors the traffic and can add managed IT services, such as security and WAN optimization, Weiner said.

The service is supported in 70 countries, using dozens of wireless carriers' networks around the world. Although the wireless and backbone providers ultimately control the traffic, Virtela offers service-level agreements (SLAs) for its 3G and 4G services.

"We understand the nature and quality of each of those circuits and where they are from our local cloud centers to each of the end sites. We have the insight to know roughly what kind of performance to expect, and we can monitor that," Weiner said. "Given that even our core network is multicarrier … we can really make that [wireless WAN] circuit at times perform a lot better potentially than if they did some end-to-end wireless [with one provider]."

On the device side, Sprint is working on improved 4G wireless WAN connections at the branch. Later this year, the wireless carrier will sell a business-class WiMax router that offers better reliability than its consumer-oriented mobile broadband cards and 3G/4G personal hotspot devices, according to Steve Coker, general manager of product marketing for business mobility solutions at Sprint.

Sprint customers have deployed 3G and 4G as wireless WAN connections, Coker said.  But today's devices support no more than five users. While 3G best serves transaction-heavy traffic, enterprises are looking to 4G for more upload and download capacity and to run some real-time services, such as video and collaboration applications, in very small offices, Coker said.

The new Sprint 4G device will have externally-mounted, separate 3G and 4G antennas to eliminate the performance hit current devices take when failing over between the two networks on a single antenna, he said. Sprint plans to back the device and service with an SLA and expects the device could support about 10 users, he said. He declined to specify when the new 4G device would be released.

"It will be an enterprise-grade type of device that [customers] could reliably run their businesses on full-time," Coker said.

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Jessica Scarpati, News Writer.

 

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