30 July 2009

The Decline And Fall Of Ethernet (At The Edge)

The first quarter of 2009 witnessed the first ever decline in wired switch port sales, accompanied by sales of laptops exceeding those of desktop PCs. These events herald the advent of the always-connected mobile workforce. A workforce that expects network access to be available everywhere works transpires. An untethered workforce.

According to the PEW Internet & American Life Project, it is not unusual for Americans to use the Internet “constantly” at work. To do so effectively, Americans either need to be equipped with Ethernet extension cords or cut the cord entirely. Why? Because where once we worked at desks all day long, today roughly half of us spend at least 20 percent of our work time away from our primary workplace. That from Yankee Group's Anywhere Enterprise—Large: 2009 U.S. Transforming Infrastructure and Transforming Applications Survey.

We are transitioning into an increasingly mobile workforce. And to stay connected we are turning our backs on traditional wired Ethernet networks and looking to Wi-Fi. According to another Yankee Group report, Make Wireless the Burger of Enterprise LAN Access, Not the Fries, in 2006 about 43 percent of enterprises did not even offer Wi-Fi access. In 2009 that number dropped to just 11 percent. More telling, 45 percent of enterprises expect that by 2012 more than 50% of their work forces will be connected to an office Wi-Fi network.

The transition from wired to Wi-Fi did not come quickly or easily. Many generations of wireless pretenders have attempted to steal the edge access throne from Ethernet – starting with proprietary frequency hoppers and moving through three versions of 802.11 standards-based wireless.

In ascendance now is the real king – 802.11n. The first standards-based wireless to offer performance, security, and value that rivals or bests Ethernet. In difficult economic times, it’s value that sells, and for network access 802.11n wins hands down over wired networks except for a very limited number of power users.

The good news is that selecting an access method is not a binary choice. Users can mix Ethernet and 802.11n access, using the former only where necessary and the latter everywhere else. Indeed, Wave 1 of the Yankee Group survey revealed that forty percent of enterprises have no plans to deploy gigabit Ethernet to the desktop, preferring instead to move to 802.11n Wi-Fi. Following such a
“rightsizing” process promises to deliver the greatest value and the lowest access cost per user, while offering a level of mobility a wired network can simply never match.

Just as the Roman Empire succumbed to invasions due to the loss of its greatness, so too is Ethernet edge access fading in the face of a more virtuous technology. So if you’re considering an office network refresh, or have a green field deployment, follow the tide. As Gibbons wrote, “the wind and the waves are always on the side of the ablest navigators.”