Organisations of all sizes are under pressure to go wireless. Their staff have experienced the benefits of Wi-Fi at home or at public hotspots, and their customers expect Wi-Fi internet access when visiting their offices. Also, once business managers become aware of Wi-Fi’s capabilities, they soon start to demand the advantages it can bring.
Robert Casula, technical director at wireless VAR Applinet, said: “The real high-value driver is to allow new applications that wouldn’t be possible with fixed LANs. Examples include location-aware applications, such as asset tracking, museum and tourism applications, and true mobile use, such as wireless barcode scanners and wireless IP telephony.”
VARs should be able to get the same benefits as any other user from adopting Wi-Fi in their own businesses. Most vendors will sell resellers discounted demo kit for their own use, and not using Wi-Fi could send the wrong message to customers.
Stewart Hayward, commercial director at online reseller WStore, said: “VARs are expected to lead the way in using the technologies they sell. You couldn’t really get away with not having a wireless network.”
In other words, would you buy a car from someone who couldn’t drive?
Jim Calderbank, director of channels at secure wireless vendor BlueSocket, said: “Visitors can experience secure guest access and then realise what’s possible and initiate conversations that should lead to further sales.”
In theory, any VAR should be able to move into selling Wi-Fi, but in practice the technology tends to attract those with existing experience in networking or security.
Calderbank added: “Secure wireless is a great technology for resellers to bridge from security to networking and vice-versa.”
As voice over Wi-Fi picks up, VARs can expect to see more competition from IP telephony specialists, according to Andy Penn, portfolio business manager for IP infrastructure at Siemens Communications.
Richard Moir, chief technical officer for Scotland at Cisco, said: “Wireless LAN [WLAN] is sometimes perceived as a simple network connectivity extension, so deployments are usually carried out by wired network experts. But they may not always understand the very specific behaviour of radio frequency or the particulars of WLAN security.”
Michael Hong, product marketing manager at vendor Foundry Networks, said: “There is a learning curve involved in deploying and maintaining wireless networks. Resellers need adequate training and expertise so that they don’t squander the money earned on hardware in providing maintenance and support.”
Consumers and small office/home office users tend to buy from retail or online. They are so price conscious that wise VARs will not target them, according to Michael Marsanu, chief technology officer at Funkwerk.
At the other end of the scale, Hayward said, selling to corporates is difficult. “You have to start talking about site surveys and analysis of network traffic,” he said. “There are far more security considerations. Also, expertise is needed to integrate wired and wireless networks and covering a much larger ground area.”
In the corporate market there is strong competition from telcos and large system integrators, but the SME space is wide open, according to Stephen Dane, director of UK and Ireland carrier and system integrator sales at remote connectivity provider iPass.
“VARs can be more flexible and personable than their larger competitors,” he said. “SMEs aren’t well serviced by large telcos, which leaves the market fragmented. There is a VAR opportunity here.”
Some vendors claim that resellers can make 25 per cent margin on Wi-Fi hardware, but others complain of commoditisation and falling margins.
Jason Fazackerley, sales director at Manchester VAR Cedilla Systems, said there is no money in the kit.
However, he added: “Margins on services and expertise are good. There are opportunities where wireless networking is part of a bigger project.”
Value-added opportunities range from network design and implementation, to security and enhanced support. Vendors report a growing interest in voice over Wi-Fi, IP cameras for security and surveillance, and managed services, including hotspots. Further hardware sales may include upgrading switches and telephone systems to take advantage of wireless voice over IP.
James Walker, product manager for wireless and security at networking vendor Zyxel, said: “I can’t stress enough how important site surveys are. Unless they are done properly, the infrastructure won’t deliver and customers’ expectations won’t be met.”
Marsanu said site surveys can also be a useful ice-breaker to get into corporate accounts.
“A site survey helps to build confidence in WLAN and in the VAR,” he said. “It also allows both parties to have a common understanding of the infrastructure investment required. As the VAR normally gets paid for this service, it can offer a rebate if it subsequently implements the project.”
Hayward claimed that most Wi-Fi vendors operate mostly or wholly through the channel.
“On the SME side, I’d class Netgear, D-Link, Linksys and Belkin as the leading players, but there’s not a lot between them,” he said.
Casula said: “Additional products such as BlueSocket plug the gaps in the feature sets of simpler point solutions. At the enterprise end, there are three main vendors with enterprise-class, centrally managed ‘thin AP’ [Access Point] solutions: Cisco, Aruba and Trapeze.”
All of these vendors have similar headline feature sets, but each has its particular strengths, according to Casula. Cisco has the most mature and feature-rich product set, Aruba has security, and Trapeze has a good management platform and strong third-party relationships, he claimed.
With the big three also moving into the SME market with smaller switches, it is becoming easier to scale from a small hotspot to a campus-wide WLAN with a single, centrally managed infrastructure, Casula said.
However, despite the acknowledged advantages of Wi-Fi, many users still have reservations.
“Wireless networking is widely used, but it is not widely relied upon,” Hayward said. “Usually for larger companies, wireless is an add-on, but it is not essential. The uptime you get from wireless networks is just not reliable enough for a large business.”
Wi-Fi technology continues to develop rapidly, and new standards such as 802.11n (see box, page 31) promise significant increases in speed. But in certain basic respects, Wi-Fi still lags behind conventional wired networks.
“Wireless networking is not the panacea many people expected,” Fazackerley said. “The hub is still hardwired and can be a bottleneck. And although the range is supposed to be about 100m, I’ve known it not do 10m in some buildings.
Casula said: “Currently, 54Mbps is the top speed, but actual data throughput is significantly less – about 25Mbps – and it drops the farther away you get from the access point. Some vendors implement a ‘SuperG’ speed of 108Mbps by using two simultaneous channels. But this causes problems for scalability because of interference and lack of available channels, and it requires specific client hardware, which is often vendor-specific.”
Keith Bird, UK managing director at network security vendor SonicWall, said: “Heavily populated areas also present deployment issues, particularly managed offices where a number of businesses operate and everyone is trying to deploy wireless.
Compatibility can be an issue when attempting anything fancy.
“Making a connection between a terminal and a WLAN infrastructure from different vendors doesn’t cause many problems,” Moir said. “The difference comes from advanced services that could be implemented by some vendors and not others.”
Marsanu said: “While you can mix and match any Wi-Fi-certified client device with your choice of access points, don’t mix and match access points. Stick with the same vendor.”
Although Wi-Fi can be less expensive to implement than a wired network, higher service and support costs make it more expensive to maintain, according to Hayward.
Bird said: “Corporates that deploy Wi-Fi properly, reliably and securely will find that it’s not as cheap as a wired network. While this price difference is narrowing, I doubt the two will ever match.”
The Wi-Fi industry is working to address these issues, but this brings problems of its own. Casula said: “A big risk for VARs is the fact that wireless technology evolves very quickly and new standards come out that render the previous technology obsolete in relatively short timescales. If the reseller selects the ‘wrong’ solution, it can leave customers stranded 12 months down the line with a dead-end product and an expensive lift-and-shift upgrade.”
Variable performance, high cost of ownership and shifting standards may all deter potential users from adopting Wi-Fi, but for many the chief concern is security.
Unencrypted Wi-Fi traffic can be easily intercepted. Poorly secured WLANs can easily be hacked, allowing intruders to use the owner’s bandwidth for free, use its servers to send spam, propagate viruses and access confidential data, which may also have data-protection implications if it relates to individual staff.
Real though these risks are, all can be guarded against by configuring and managing WLANs correctly and by using appropriate encryption and other security measures.
The reseller’s job is to convince its customers of this. Most people are more aware of the risks of Wi-Fi than the solutions, according to Dane.
Marsanu said: “Most security risks come from misconfigured devices and/or networks.”
Casula said: “The classic example is a user who’s bought their own wireless access point and connected it to the corporate LAN without authorisation. A campus-wide wireless network is really the only effective way of detecting and reporting on these unauthorised APs.”
Hayward said: “Security concerns can mean more consultancy from a reseller perspective, especially in corporate environments where the set-up is more complex.”
Often, according to Calderbank, security issues can provide resellers with the introduction they need to potential Wi-Fi customers.
“Once they have the wireless conversation, the first step is to se-cure any WLAN the user already has,” he said. “Security is key to WLAN, not an add-in to generate extra revenues.”
Ian Kilpatrick, chairman of security distributor Wick Hill, said: “You don’t sell on fear, uncertainty and doubt. You talk to people about the value of secure wireless: convenience, mobility, lower cost, higher productivity and ease of use.”
Only once resellers convince customers that the benefits outweigh the problems will Wi-Fi become a mainstream technology for business.
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