The case for open standard wireless networks
In the early days of wired networks, several proprietary or "single source" local area network (LAN) architectures and implementations were heavily marketed and subsequently installed in many facilities around this earth. Some are still in use, though their numbers have dropped considerably. Many of us remember Banyan Vines, Novell Networks, or Token Ring, all of which have shuffled off to oblivion in the face of open standard Ethernet—IEEE 802.3.
There are several standalone, proprietary wireless systems that are being aggressively marketed in the face of increasing standardization. At the risk of editorializing, these wireless systems are having a somewhat negative effect on the adoption and proliferation of more useful (and less costly) open standard systems. The marketing hype associated with these systems is driven purely by short-term profit, however, with no real concern for the lingering effects of the negative impacts they are having on the decision to implement open standard WLANs.
Typically, as was the case with proprietary wired networks, the software and hardware required for a proprietary WLAN is very expensive to purchase, implement, and maintain. These wireless systems also require specialized talent that doesn’t necessarily have useful technical skills outside of the particular system being used. Eventually, a sharp technician will develop cross-platform skills to increase his marketability, but by that time things may have changed radically. In the meanwhile, both the vendor and the client have invested huge sums of money and an excess of valuable time to support a system with a relatively short life cycle. This is a very narrow and wasteful approach that is, again, driven by profit rather than the promotion and development of the technology.
Implementation of proprietary systems puts the client in a difficult position: His expert has gone to bat for the system and can’t back out. For the vendor, it is a gift that continues to give—the poor client is locked into a system that requires some very expensive care and feeding and usually will not perform all of its required functions without regular and expensive upgrades and patches, not to mention costly and specialized labor. This leads to an overall negative impression of the technology. I have seen this cycle countless times within the instrumentation industry; open channel flow meters were a particularly notorious example of a great technology that had significant growing pains and were subsequently avoided. The same is happening with WLAN systems; especially those used in instrumentation implementations.
To their credit, vendors of proprietary WLANs did a great job in capitalizing on a need that was based upon the very commendable motives of reducing costs and enhancing utility; however, implementation produced the opposite result. It was a classic "bait and switch" where a vendor promised all of the things that would later be easily provided by open standard technology but had not been perfected. It was essential to get the client "hooked" on the product so that he could not easily back out—how do you explain the abandonment of expenditures of several hundred thousand dollars to a skeptical Board of Directors without compromising your integrity, credibility, or livelihood? This is possibly the best reason why semi-functional and less-than-useful proprietary wireless systems are still in use.
This may be heresy, but open standard wireless, particularly IEEE 802.11 and 802.15.4, is extremely useful and cost effective—and requires substantially less resources to acquire and implement. There is no further need to use proprietary solutions that work in older frequency spectra such as 900 MHz. With the release of IEEE 802.11ah in 2016, the 900 MHz spectrum will be made incredibly useful again and allow thousands of embedded sensors to communicate using open standard technology. This will effectively obsolete the existing proprietary wireless systems operating in that spectrum. There will be no need for proprietary transmitters and receivers that employ vendor-specific configuration and coding, drivers, and management software.
The cost for open standard wireless network interfaces will shortly make proprietary equipment superfluous, just as we saw with wired systems. The wireless medium will be made completely useful and relatively free of additional cost, particularly recurring cost, which is the bane of many clients. Certainly, there will always be an initial capital expense, but that expense will be much lower, as will time commitments for implementation, and adhering to open standards will allow clients to retain low-cost technical personnel who will be well versed in all facets of open standard technology.
As was the case with wired networks some 30 years ago, clients and users will migrate away from proprietary, closed systems after realizing the economy and utility of open standard systems. The damage being done now by the failure of the various proprietary implementations to provide economical solutions and reliable performance is of particular concern. Those who have already bought into these systems will be very reluctant to admit that it was a mistake, and this will only prolong the error. "Buyer’s remorse" will engender undeserved mistrust and negative attitudes towards a truly useful technology. For example, Ethernet is now the de facto wired standard worldwide, but that only happened after several false starts. Attempts by manufacturers to impose the use of proprietary network buses have met with limited success. This will also be the initial case with wireless technology, but over time, mistakes will be overcome and forgotten.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I do not specify or design anything remotely proprietary or "single source" unless it truly cannot be replaced with an "or equal." Proprietary systems and devices serve the world well as proving grounds and then market forces take over; this was the case with wired networks. Typically, proprietary systems cost much more money over the long term, waste an inordinate amount of time in the short term, and eventually will be replaced with an open system that costs less and performs better. This has been my experience over 30 years of learning the hard way.
The lesson to be learned here is before you commit yourself, your client, or your employer to a proprietary wireless scheme, consider that you will be "married" to this technology and its typically exorbitant and unnecessary costs for years to come. As with all things, step back, take a breath, and consider the alternatives and the consequences of being precipitous. Open standard technology, like water, always finds its level; this has been shown in almost every technology we now find to be ubiquitous. While some will seek a short-term advantage that benefits few, technology eventually finds a better way to benefit all, and at much lesser cost.
– Daniel E. Capano, owner and president, Diversified Technical Services Inc. of Stamford, Conn., is a certified wireless network administrator (CWNA); firstname.lastname@example.org. Edited by Chris Vavra, production editor, CFE Media, Control Engineering, email@example.com.
www.controleng.com/blogs has other wireless tutorials from Capano on the following topics:
Wireless intrusion detection and protection systems
Integrating a wireless LAN into an existing wired LAN
Choosing between single- and multi-channel architecture
www.controleng.com/webcasts has wireless webcasts, some for PDH credit.
Control Engineering has a wireless page.