Year in Review: Wireless takes lead role on networking stage

Despite their well-known security sensitivities, wireless networks dominated the scene -- locally and globally -- in 2003.

Despite their well-known security sensitivities, wireless networks dominated the scene -- locally and globally -- in 2003.

Smart switches, 10 gigabit ethernet and the promotion of IPv6 and Internet2/next generation internet also made worldwide headlines. While on the domestic front, further work and customer deployments on Telecom's all-IP next generation network, and Vector's takeover of UnitedNetworks Communications, which resulted in two ethernet providers becoming one, were important networking landmarks.

But it was wireless which was hailed by some observers (and equipment vendors) as the future of networking. Others sounding a more cautious note, pointing out that in areas such as security and ubiquitous access, there's still some way to go.

A significant milestone in wireless last year was the approval of the 802.11g standard in July. 802.11g-enabled hardware can throughput data at a theoretical maximum of 54Mbit/s and is backwards-compatible with installed 802.11b gear, unlike rival specification 802.11a.

Market researcher Dell'Oro noted that wireless LAN shipments around the world in the second quarter of 2003 were 6% up on figures for the first quarter and that 802.11g was a boost for the market, with some vendors, including HP, releasing 802.11g-equipped product before the standard was officially approved.

Work continued on security, viewed by many as the weakest link in the Wi-Fi chain, with the 802.11i draft standard coming closer to approval.

802.11i was renamed WPA (Wi-Fi protected access) and while it has the potential to offer better security than WEP, which comes automatically with most Wi-Fi gear, WPA can mean changes in configuration and possibly new hardware for some users.

Another draft standard, 802.11e, will deliver better quality of service for voice over Wi-Fi, but it will be next year before any products appear that take advantage of it or 802.11i.

Former Intel executive Les Vadasz summed it up at the Wi-Fi Planet conference in May when he said "wireless networks are easier to corrupt and easier to access than wired networks.

"There are solutions for this, but they're either not readily available, or cumbersome."

Despite that, several ambitious Wi-Fi projects were commenced, including a large scale roll out of wireless LANs at McDonalds outlets in the US and several other countries, but not New Zealand.

New Zealand's wireless scene did get a boost, however, with expansion of the CafeNet network in downtown Wellington and a trial by Telecom of wireless LANs in Air New Zealand's domestic Koru lounges.

In the wired world, vendors continued to produce smarter switches and 10 gigabit ethernet gear.

While there appears to be little demand for the latter in New Zealand, 10G made strides overseas, in the enterprise space more so than the carrier.

However, Dell'Oro predicted that only 4000 10G ports would be shipped by the end of last year and while that's 3000 more than in 2002, the compound growth is only a fraction of that seen by gigabit ports, which sold 220,000 in their second year of availability, up from 11,000 in the first, 1997.

The real driver of 10G will be when it's available over copper and while moves have been made in that direction in 2003, a full standard is yet to be set.

Vendors continued to release smart switches and smart features for existing ones, an example being Foundry Networks, which put on the market 9.0, a new version of its TrafficWorks Ironware operating system with XML switching capability.

Nortel also released a slew of smart switches, as did market leader Cisco.

IPv6 received much attention from a few quarters, notably the US Defense Department, which decreed that all gear bought from October 2003 support both IPv4 and IPv6.

The department is building a new IPv6 network, Moonv6 and by 2008, its current network will be migrated to the Moonv6 platform.

The decision will have a large flow-on effect, considering how many contractors there are supplying the Pentagon with communications equipment.

Nokia released a prototype IPv6 handset, but analyst Gartner said it would be 2007-8 before non-carrier organisations needed to start looking at moving to IPv6.

IPv4 is generally serving the internet well and while increased net use around the world could deplete IPv4's reservoir of IP addresses, it isn't expected to be a problem in the immediate future.

In the US, Internet2, the project providing a fast, private next wave internet network for 200 universities across the country, made further progress, upgrading its network, dubbed Abilene, to 10Gbit/s.

Internet2 has been described as "similar to the internet before it went commercial, an advanced network for academia to test sophisticated and complex applications such as remote control of telescopes and immense virtual reality."

New Zealand doesn't have a private super next wave internet, but we're working on it, via the NGI (next generation internet) consortium, a group of universities and other interested parties.

The NGI made some progress towards plans for a network in New Zealand similar to Internet2, but it may be some time before we have such a network or are connected to overseas ones.

Locally, significant events in networking included the ongoing development of Telecom's all-IP next generation network, with customers utilising it including Contact Energy.

Alcatel, Telecom's strategic partner for the new network, also took more day to day control, inking a $120 million, five year deal with Telecom to maintain the new network and the existing copper PSTN one.

Telecom also outsourced its 027 mobile network to Lucent Technologies, adopting for networks the same model it has for IT, which it outsources to EDS.

Electricity company Vector bought UnitedNetworks, which gave Vector the chance to merge United's Auckland and Wellington metropolitan ethernet networks with its own.

Tangent, Vector's ethernet division, saw obvious synergies with UnitedNetworks' ones, as both were a case of a utility putting fibre in a disused underground conduits.

The acquisition of UnitedNetworks' Auckland network, in particular, was a valuable one for Vector.

Tangent general manager Maxine Elliot told Computerworld when the deal was done in September that UnitedNetworks was "a nice stretch of network, [with] a lot of connections into buildings that Tangent didn't have".

Wellington metro ethernet provider CityLink provided crucial networking capacity for The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King to be shown on the internet, through the use of networking gear in a van parked beside outside broadcast trucks, with the footage being fed into CityLink's network at 100Mbit/s for ISPs to pick up.

Telecom's FilmNet network was also used to provide bandwidth for Peter Jackson and Weta Digital to send digital film footage around the world, which goes to show that behind every good film these days, there's a good network.

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