Adding wireless to your WAN: Is it worth the effort?

Adding wireless to a wide area network (WAN) involves more than a wireless WAN card. This tip explains where WWANs are most useful to enterprises.

Unlike what most networking vendors would have you believe, adding wireless to a wide area network (WAN) is not as simple as adding a wireless WAN card to your router. In this tip, learn where wireless wide area networking makes the most sense for your enterprise.

Wireless services are ideal for enterprises looking for critical link backup and fast deployment. Wireless, especially the new 4G wireless networks and services, also provides Internet connectivity where other services are not available.

Wide area networks (WANs) are the means by which corporate data and applications are distributed between data centers and to remote offices. As a consequence, network reliability can be not only significant to the job longevity of IT professionals, but critical to the viability of the business itself. Especially in the case of businesses that have a direct impact on health or financial verticals, network failure may need to be avoided at all costs.

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From that perspective, wireless can be a good fit for any organization requiring failover or quick deployment times. This is especially true in the case of branch offices. In fact, branch offices have become the soul of modern business, providing services in close proximity to customers. Yet, frequently these offices exist in remote locations, at the edges of the carriers' networks. High-speed data circuits may be unavailable or the data rates may be rather slow. In any case, the opportunity to provide path redundancy to guard against failure may be limited to non-existent. In such cases, wireless may offer a viable WAN connectivity alternative, failover path or may provide data rates that meet or even exceed those available by landline.

However, wireless is not as simple as plugging a wireless card into the remote office router -- although, network technology vendors might want you to believe this. Understanding data loads, throughput and application requirements will be even more crucial when adding wireless to the WAN -- especially where network performance is concerned.

As a simple case in point, VPNs, which are fundamental to extending a secure connection to a remote office, may not work well over wireless; such applications are sensitive to the latency issues that can characterize a wireless connection. Also, if the bandwidth required exceeds the wireless connections, application performance can be compromised. WAN wireless planning needs to consider all of these things, as well as how wireless might be used for failover in a disaster planning context. Additionally, wireless planning must provide for routine testing and assessment.

The good news is that IT doesn't need to do this alone. Wireless carriers have a significant amount of experience in deploying wireless solutions in WAN environments. In particular, carriers like AT&T, Verizon and Sprint have extensive business services departments that can not only assess whether wireless makes sense in particular geographic locations, but they can provide examples to use as templates for IT organization planning efforts.

While wireless can make sense in support of enterprise networking, it goes without saying that wireless isn't for everyone. As an example, a utility company that tried to support remote offices for the purpose of customer support found that the wireless connection's throughput varied by time of day: just when customers were lining up in the evening to settle billing issues, the wireless links would degrade. Needless to say, both the utility company and its customers were unhappy. It is best to have serious discussions both with the wireless carrier as well as the network technology vendor. In fact, vendors like Cisco and Juniper have definite opinions on how and when to use wireless: Consult your vendor early and often.

A wireless connection is not the same as a wireline connection. Wireless can be less secure and subject to interception. It can also be unpredictable in performance when you need it most, as noted above. Finally, when used in a failover mode, the enterprise must pay for the additional capacity even if it is not being used; for high capacity links, the costs can be substantial.

The bottom line is that a network that utilizes wireless in the core is more complex than one that doesn't. However, this doesn't mean IT professionals should shy away from using wireless where it makes sense. Developing a plan that includes wireless for fast response deployments, disaster recovery and failover may be a prudent way to ensure WAN availability and performance. The key to success is to work closely with your wireless carriers and network technology vendors, and to test, test, test.

For more information, find out where wireless WAN services are with SLAs.

This was first published in August 2012

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