Wireless solutions present new challenges

Managing connectivity for your users used to be a relatively simple task. You could arrive at the office, check to make sure that the network was still up, then go about your daily business of putting out fires. If someone's network connection was down, you heard about it pronto. Fixing the connection more often than not was a simple matter of correcting a user error or replacing a broken piece of hardware.

Then life became more complex. Businesses needed to communicate with remote units or traveling users, and the typical infrastructure wasn't quite up to the task. I vividly remember the day my boss walked into my office with a 300-page telephone bill for a phone number I was responsible for. We used the phone line to synchronize our Lotus cc:Mail system with the company that had acquired us.

The problem was that I was responsible only for my end of the connection. The systems administrator on the connection's other end had misconfigured his part of the connection so that when my modem called, his modem answered, performed a handshake, then immediately hung up. So, roughly every 20 to 30 seconds, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, my modem would retry the connection, and his modem would answer and hang up. The software's default was to continually redial a failed connection that answered the phone. The result was a giant bill of more than 3000 6-cent phone calls.

Eventually, we figured out a way to limit the number of times the modem would redial to once per hour, but doing so required a software upgrade. The problem wasn't that we were trying to do something the software wasn't designed for; rather, the problem was caused by an unforeseen user error. Of course, the fact that nontechnical managers who didn't have any idea whether the solution would work made the decision to set up the connection didn't help matters.

The Proactivity Solution
That fiasco wasn't the first or the last problem I've had with connectivity in my career, but it was certainly the silliest, and I hope it's never topped. But as I went on to set up remote offices, metropolitan area networks (MANs), WANs, and remote access for traveling users, I always tried to stay a couple of steps ahead of the requests I knew would eventually filter down from the business management side of the house. I knew that if I presented options ahead of time to management, I could short-circuit odd ideas before they made my life miserable.

Convincing management to spend money for tools that prevent problems and help you do your job more efficiently is always a tougher sell than pushing tools that directly improve the business bottom line. But after you survive your first couple of network crises that affect the folks who hold the purse strings, prying money out of them for the solutions that will help you prevent those network problems becomes easier. In other words, being proactive is easier when management realizes that IT proactivity is a business plus.

Staying ahead of your business managers on the technology trends that will affect them is a key element in IT proactivity. For example, I'm sure you're currently making plans to implement or are actively implementing connectivity solutions for wireless devices into your network business model. The market for basic wireless networking and the technology's rate of adoption have matured together. The 802.11 standard has moved basic LAN-speed wireless networks from cutting-edge technology to commodity item in almost record time. So, when your chief financial officer (CFO) walks into your office and tells you that he wants to use the same hardware for his home and office network (and by the way, he isn't planning on running cable at home), you've got a wireless networking solution in hand.

The Wireless Challenge
Another piece of the wireless puzzle is harder to deal with, and if you aren't looking at solutions now, you need to do so ASAP. This piece is the wireless market as exemplified by Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) phones, Research In Motion's (RIM's) BlackBerry devices, and various Personal Digital Assistant (PDA)—based solutions. Probably a dozen different solutions supporting more than a hundred products exist, and many solutions aren't compatible with one another. I'm willing to bet that if you work in a midsized or larger business, executives are running around with wireless devices in their pockets and are on the verge of asking you to begin implementing them as a companywide standard, without regard to compatibility with your existing standard.

I believe that the wireless market is still developing (seen any Bluetooth devices lately?) and that a firm commitment to any one standard isn't appropriate right now. But I also know dozens of BlackBerry users who are incredibly happy with their devices. Sitting in meetings with these people is often like watching someone play with a Nintendo Game Boy: They each have that same intense focus as their thumbs fly over the keyboard. However, the Windows 2000 Magazine Lab found reviewing the RIM device and its Exchange connector an aggravating, complicated task, and I would dread having to support a variety of messaging devices if I serviced a group of people clamoring for a WAP phone or a wireless PDA.

Get Going
Although each of the competing wireless technologies has a proprietary solution for integrating its technology into your network, I've yet to come across a unified management solution that targets all the existing connectivity options. Maybe if your IT group makes a preemptive strike, you can avoid being faced with too many different options. Somehow I doubt it.

But having written that, I have to emphasize that the wireless connectivity phenomenon is something we ignore at our peril. Although the phrase "moving at the speed of business" is yet another hackneyed advertising mantra, it's nevertheless a statement of fact. The connections you manage today are expanding beyond the hard-wired network much faster than any of us could have imagined, and will continue to do so. If you haven't started evaluating the available wireless technologies, it's almost past time to get moving.