By: John C. Welch
During the keynote at this year's MacWorld Expo in New York, Steve Jobs, Apple's iCEO introduced the iBook, the 'final quadrant' in Apple's product strategy. What was the most amazing part, wasn't the iBook, although it is definitely cool. No, the amazing part was the AirPort, the wireless networking card that is pretty much a standard feature of the iBook. It is the AirPort, much more than the iBook that is going to change networking, especially home networking.
Now a lot of us, especially those in the networking business, know that there have been many products that do wireless networking, and none have been successful, so why would the AirPort be any different?
Well, for one, most of the previous wireless networking products have been cumbersome -- and the AirPort is not that. You needed to sign up for a special service, it only worked with certain operating systems, the infrastructure costs were very high, and in the case of Microwave, Laser, or Infrared, they only worked on a line-of-sight basis.
What line-of-sight means is that there has to be a clear path from one point to the other for the network to function. This is most obviously seen in things like television remotes, wireless keyboards, and Palm Pilots. Although this type of wireless is relatively cheap, in a business or school environment, it is very impractical, which is why the whole IRDA standard has yet to catch on.
Another problem with previous wireless was speed. They weren't fast enough, and didn't have the bandwidth enough to handle the level of traffic that a modern network can handle. A lot of wireless implementations maxed out at ~2Mbps, which is only 20% of 'normal' Ethernet bandwidth. Considering that a lot of networks are starting to go to 100Mbps as a 'standard' connection, the 2Mbs connection isn't even an option. Finally, the wireless options just cost too much in both time and money to be practical, and they really only worked with laptops and other portables. Adding additional wiring to handle the receptors, getting the cards to work with normal business applications, the increased tech support, a lot of companies just figured it was easier to run more Ethernet wires, even though the potential for something really useful was there.
Actually, wireless networking is a lot more widespread than I am making it sound, but it has been in very limited markets for whom wireless is a requirement. The most notable example is fire and law enforcement. Those fields can't exactly use anything else but wireless for their communication needs. So over the years, you see, especially the police departments, being the first to use wireless data terminals in the patrol cars, and now laptops. However, these are all specialized units, and not exactly suitable for normal use. Especially considering that a casehardened laptop can cost $10,000 or more.
So what makes the AirPort different? Well first of all, the speed. With a maximum speed of 11 Mbps, and figuring in Ethernet - style overhead and errors, you get real world speeds of 7 - 9 Mbps, and that is very usable, even allowing for things like video conferencing. These speeds are easily attainable with up to ten users per 'pod', (the pod being the AirPort's base station) and each pod can support up to thirty users, although as you go above ten, your speed tends to drop a bit. Also, the Airport's 'Pod' base station has a lot of features that make it a very good player in today's corporate and home environment. One of the things it does is act as a DHCP server, so that for every ten computers using the pod, you only need to assign one static address, and since I believe that the pods can be DHCP clients themselves,
You don't need static address for the pods either. By itself, the DHCP is nice, but you still need to have eleven addresses free in your DHCP pool, (one for the pod and each of the ten clients). So Lucent Technologies, the makers of the AirPort, added another feature to the pod, Network Address Translation, NAT. This allows the Pod to tell the network outside of it's clients that regardless of which machine is sending data, they all only have one TCP/IP address. This is used commonly with firewalls in a corporate situation. It gives a company essentially an unlimited amount of addresses, because to the outside world, the company only has one address. So now, instead of needing eleven or so addresses for each pod, you only need one, because everything behind the pod is seen as having the pod's address. So now, you only have one wire needed for eleven computers, and one DHCP address or static address needed for eleven computers.
For anyone who has ever had to deal with some of the truly monstrous wiring closets and wire runs in a modern network, this is like the holy grail of networking, a new toy that actually saves you time and space, and money.
But it gets better. With the pod's price being in the $300 - $500 range, your cost per 'port' is around $27 to $47 dollars. Considering that you are going to be able to reduce the number of wired ports in your network, and depending on the equipment, that can cost quite a bit more per port, and factoring in the fact that fewer wires equals less troubleshooting time, it's definitely a cost saver. Another benefit to the corporate IS crowd is the fact that each user has to 'log in' to a pod to connect to it. So now, you have a basic security model right there. If someone isn't authorized to connect to a certain pod or pods, they can't. For companies worried about internal security, this, again, is one of those things that generates smiles. If Bob from engineering decides he wants to go play in the accounting servers, but he isn't authorized to accounting's pods, he can't. Also, since the pods don't support 'roaming', ala cell phones, to go from pod A to pod B, you have to log in and out of the different pods.
Obviously, a lot of this is not applicable to desktop computers. But with more and more companies using laptops as replacements for desktops, preventing unauthorized physical access is a critical security issue
Another feature that makes the AirPort so useful is it's range, 150 feet. This is enough for all but the biggest rooms, and because the AirPort uses a radio frequency, or RF transmitter system, line of sight is not necessary. In fact, unless your office has a lot of steel in the walls, the pod can be in the ceiling, in the hall, outside your office, and you can still use it
Finally, the AirPort is designed to work with existing networks. It supports TCP/IP, NAT, DHCP, all common Internet standards. As a matter of fact, from what I heard at MacWorld, AppleTalk support is not guaranteed, so the AirPort is pretty much a TCP/IP - only party, which will make network admins happy. The important part about this is that the AirPort doesn't require anything more than the pods, the interface cards, appropriate drivers, and wires to the pods.
But the AirPort is not just a corporate toy. It's absolutely fantastic for the home, and home office. Think about it. If your house is a wood frame structure, you can buy one pod, have it attached to your cable modem, DSL, or even conventional phone line, (this is where the DHCP and NAT features come into play!), and your whole house is instantly wired. Even if you live down in say, Miami, where you run into the concrete-block and stucco, (CBS) buildings, you'd only need more than one pod if you had a really big house. The real beauty is that because the AirPort is RF, you can work from anywhere in your house, or even your yard. You're not tied to the one room with the network connection, you don't have to buy and run yards of Ethernet cable, (which only get left behind when you move), none of that. Get the connection, put the pod in a central location, and viola! The wired home!
This is NOT to say that I am encouraging people to violate the terms of their agreements with their cable companies, etc. If you are supposed to pay a set fee per computer connecting to someone's network, then play it straight. However, if I were a cable company, I would see this as a great, new 'value added' service!
I think all of the above reasons are why I am so excited about the AirPort. For my work, it means reducing my wiring work by a factor of ten, maybe more. It means that if I need to bring my laptop into a conference room, I don't need to fight for a 'good' seat near the network connections. It means a lot less time dealing with line testers, and all that other nonsense. It means that I only need one wire for every ten or so connections, and so my hubs, which I was having to buy at a furious pace, can now last me a lot longer. It gives me a lot better physical security for guests of the company that bring laptops. It means I don't spend time crawling under desks to test cable. If I need to add more users, I buy another pod or two, instead of more wire, and cutting holes in walls for the receptacles. In short, in means my work life has a real chance of become easier and simpler.
For the home, it means no more running wires through heating ducts, no more fish tape, no more crawling around attics and basements trying to figure out which critter bit through the network cable. It means I don't need such garbage as hubs in my garage. But it still means that I can start an email in the kitchen, carry the laptop into the living room to finish it, and then carry it into the bedroom to do some Instant Messages with friends before bed. It means I get a network that is as convenient to use as a portable radio.
I hope this article gives you enough information to make you want to check into the AirPort, and hey, maybe even an iBook. I think the convenience and capability of this system is going to be the next 'killer app' for networks, both in the home and corporate settings.