the wireless-only office
Author: Dan Yatzeck, Senior Network Engineer
Congratulations! Your company has decided to open a new branch office to better meet your customers' needs, and you've chosen a great office building for your staff. Now it is time to do the walkthrough and determine what the office space needs from an IT perspective.
This is when reality sets in, and you find out that the existing cabling was installed 20 years ago, or is really only good for the old "phone cord"-style connections.
The cost to run cable to your office may not have been in the budget, or if it was, may have been underestimated (are you sure that existing cable isn't good enough?). Additionally, the space you're moving into is rented and cabling may not be part of the agreement with the building owners.
Nowadays, everyone is going wireless though, right? Can you just put in a wireless system and sidestep the whole issue? Maybe yes and maybe no.
pros and cons
Let's discuss some considerations related to a wireless-only office design.
Pro: Wireless will be installed anyway
Using wireless in an office is almost ubiquitous, so much so that visiting a company that doesn't have wireless seems unusual. Chances are you are considering putting wireless in the office anyway, even if you also run wiring. It could be you just need to validate the wireless service is sufficient everywhere and just use that.
This is a perfectly valid point. The only consideration is making sure everywhere really means everywhere. Depending on the office size and layout, it may mean just putting an access point in the middle of the office, or it may mean getting several access points for the right capacity and coverage needs. This is certainly doable.
Con: Outages have larger impact
A wireless-only office really just means that you'll be using wireless for everything you'd normally use wired connections for. In fact, you won't even run wires to desks. This is all well and good, until there are issues. And when there are issues, the impact will affect everybody.
While it is true that wired networks can have the same problem, like if Internet goes down or you lose power to your network cabinet, everyone will be down anyway. Keep in mind though that wireless doesn't address any of those items - your wireless access points still need to plug in somewhere, they still need power, and you still need Internet. Instead, the outages that affect wireless are more transient and harder to pinpoint, and while they're going on everybody could be down with no clear cause.
Pro: Cabling is costly, wireless is cheaper
Typically, low voltage cabling can range from $150 to $250 per network drop as a budgetary estimate. Depending on the environment it may be more or less than this, but this is a common range. For a full office, a wired cabling plant could cost 4-5 figures even for a small office. With wireless, you put an access point up and everyone uses the same connection.
Con: Robust wireless infrastructure could cost the same amount
If you're talking about putting every piece of equipment on the wireless network, you could be doubling or tripling the number of devices connecting to wireless. This means you may need more infrastructure to support the added load.
As a rule of thumb, a single access point can support up to 25-30 devices with good throughput. And keep in mind, "devices" does not equal "users". Each user can have a laptop, phone, tablet, and any number of other personal technology that all adds up. To get the right coverage and capacity, a proper wireless design with specific requirements is needed. If several additional access points are needed, along with supporting licensing and management appliance costs, it could make up or even surpass the cost of cabling.
Keep in mind too that you'll also need cabling to wire in the access points, so some cabling will be needed anyway. It will of course be less than a full office deployment, but it's not nothing.
Pro: Wireless just works
One of the reasons wireless has taken off so well over the past 10-20 years is that it was designed with compatibility in mind. For the most part, all you need is the right passcode or credentials, maybe hit OK on a splash screen and you're good. All the complexity of wireless waves and bits and everything are baked into the hardware and set so connections are seamless and straightforward for even the simplest device.
Everyone is used to it, it's everywhere, and it works, which is why we're talking about this to begin with!
Con: Wireless is susceptible to interference
While usually wireless "just works", wired connections "just work" too. The key term is usually.
Wireless is finicky sometimes, and issues can be hard to track down. This is especially true when there are a lot of other businesses around all competing for the same wireless spectrum.
Because wireless is just broadcasting signals and hoping the other end receives it, it is much more susceptible to interference. There are a lot of technical corrections that wireless equipment does to ensure transmissions are successful, and this adds complexity. And usually they work. Usually.
For the most part, this is fine for what we've come to use wireless for - basic or short term connectivity. But when the wireless is down, pretty much everyone knows it right away and scrambles to plug in wherever they can. On the contrary, when's the last time you heard someone say "the wires are down"?
Pro: Everything supports wireless
More and more devices are built with wireless in mind. The devices that don't have wireless capability either have a good reason, or won't be around for much longer.
Most business functions, especially office work, can be done on equipment that has wireless. Ultimately this is what really matters to the business. As long as proper planning is done to get equipment with wireless built-in, a wireless-only office should be doable.
Con: Not everything supports wireless well
Laptops and phones are intended to be used on wireless, so most of the development and testing effort has been directed toward making sure these type of devices work.
However when you have a wireless-only office, these aren't the only devices on the network. Think printers, desk phones, projectors, security cameras, postage machines, and that new "smart" shipping scale out by the loading dock.
Printers in particular have historically been problematic when connected to a wireless network. For example, some printers advertise "wireless" when actually it's just a dedicated ad-hoc connection from a laptop to the printer and not actually associating with the larger corporate wireless network. Not only will this not work as a shared printer, it also adds to the wireless overhead and interference that could impact everyone else's connectivity. Even when a printer does have the right wireless options, actually printing to them can be incompatible, slow, or entirely non-responsive.
Some of these devices are also latency sensitive (especially phones!), so additional quality of service enhancements may be needed so the wireless traffic from these devices are prioritized on the wireless network. This is possible, but sometimes is only available on enterprise-grade wireless equipment.
Pro: Wireless-only has a more modern feel
Thinking about what a futuristic office looks like, fast and ubiquitous wireless connectivity is assumed. Building an office environment like this provides workers with a degree of freedom that is attractive and fun.
It can also benefit the hiring process since it can be used as a perk, and can attract candidates from a younger generation that has come to expect it.
Neutral: Wireless security is pretty good, but can be mishandled
Much has been done to improve the security of wireless communications. However, there are a lot of ways for security to go wrong. For example, traditional pre-shared-key wireless passwords can't be easily changed regularly without physically updating every device in the organization. At the same time, better security methods (like 802.1x) require additional server components to make work, and that takes additional maintenance and oversight.
Still, it is not an insurmountable challenge. The security of modern wireless networks is actually pretty good, and isn't really a barrier to deployment. It's actually much easier to just plug into a wall jack in a vacant conference room to infiltrate a network than it is to go up against a properly-secured wireless network from the parking lot.
Wireless security needs to be considered and done right, but should not be a barrier in most cases.
Wireless has become a de-facto standard of office connectivity options. However relying on this technology 100% still has some limitations that should be considered.
There are many good reasons why a wireless-only office makes sense, and it is certainly worthwhile to take an honest look at your use case to see if it fits. At the same time, make sure it is the business requirements that structure the conversation and not only cost or the glamour.
If you'd like to discuss your specific requirements with an engineer, SWICKtech can help. A site visit can be scheduled to perform a site survey and review the office environment to assist with making a recommendation.