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Is wireless networking the best choice for your architecture firm?

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The pros and cons of wireless networking

Wireless computer networking (wifi) has undoubted appeal whether your working environment achieves the tectonic simplicity of a dedicated clear-desk policy or whether it could be more accurately described as a 3D collage of your immediate tasks, reference materials, pens, pencils and empty coffee mugs. It holds up the promise of reducing the tangle of wires on your desk, simplifying office cabling and providing flexibility for laptop users.

Wifi has evolved over the last few years, and with each new standard, the theoretical network speed has been increased. In parallel to this, wired Ethernet connections for office networks have increasingly adopted gigabit Ethernet equipment leaving a theoretical performance gap of a factor of about three between wireless and the wired connections. Judged on the basis of your office’s internet access speeds then the lower performance of wireless connections are unlikely to have an impact on activities such as internet browsing. However the performance drop is likely to be significant when working on large image files stored on a central server.

In practice, the theoretical network speeds are rarely achieved. At the higher end of wired Ethernet performance the read/write access speeds of the hardware at each end of the network can have an impact. With wireless networks the potential restrictions on network speed are much more varied and can have a much greater disabling effect.

Encryption and security

Encryption is highly desirable on wireless networks as it is your defence against your network security being breached. Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP) provides a minimum low level of security, which is improved by adopting either WPA or WPA2 standards. However the higher encryption standards may not be supported by some older wireless devices and a lower performance can be expected with lower cost wireless access points. Performance differences of a factor of two have been observed between different brands of wireless access points. The rule of thumb seems to be that you get better quality if you are prepared to spend more.

When you first make a connection to your wireless network from your laptop or mobile phone you are likely to be presented with a list of all the available wireless networks in the immediate vicinity. The longer this list, the greater the potential for network performance loss due to interference. Choosing dual band 2.5GHz and 5GHz wireless access points can help in these situations as the lower frequency is slightly less prone to interference.

Place the access point in the centre of the office to minimise performance loss

Minimising performance loss can also be achieved by careful placement of the wireless access point. The wireless signals can be reflected by hard surfaces. They also and have difficulty penetrating concrete floors and brick walls. Ideally, place the access point in the centre of the space being served and if you have spaces separated by heavy construction consider placing access points in each room.

Lastly, wifi performance can be affected by the number of connections being made to a network. The growth of wifi-enabled mobile phones means that the demand on networks may have increased from just a handful of laptops to one or more connections for every member of staff in your organisation.

The overall impact of these constraints on wifi performance generally means that except for the smallest home or home-office networks it is best viewed as an add-on to hard-wired computer networking and not as the primary method of delivering network services. The cable-free desktop may not be quite here yet.

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