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WLANs (wireless LAN) vs. Cable LAN. Can Wireless LANs replace cables?

Abstract
WLANs can replace cables, but the question arises, are we ready for cables to be replaced entirely? The answer is no. The technology driving WLANs is still very much in its development phase as opposed to LANs, which have reached a level of maturity. Clearly the long-term benefits to be achieved through WLANs suggest that LANs will eventually become largely redundant, but this appears to be some time off. Issues of battery technology, connection speeds and security all need to be addressed before such a future starts to become a possibility. Nonetheless, the rate of technological development in this area is extremely fast. It therefore remains to be seen whether WLANs take off faster than anticipated or are themselves threatened by some new technological development. That said the advantages to be gained through changes in the way we work and the cost and productivity advantages conferred as a result lead to the recommendation that firms focus their future investment towards WLANs rather than LANs.

An Introduction to LANs and WLANs
Networks are typically distinguished by their geographical scope. In this sense, they are either local networks or wide area networks. Laudon and Laudon (2000) describe a local area network (LAN) as: “a telecommunications network that requires its own dedicated channels and that encompasses a limited distance, usually one building or several buildings in close proximity” (270). Figure 1 highlights the fixed connections between devices in a typical LAN.

Figure 1: A Typical Local Area Network (LAN)

Figure 1

On the other hand, a wide area network (WAN) is a: “telecommunications network that strongs a large geographical distance [and] may consist of a variety of cable, satellite, and microwave technologies” (Laudon and Laudon, 2000: 271). On the basis of this idea of geographical scope, a wireless LAN (WLAN) does not have anywhere near the range of a WAN, but does considerably increase the scope of a LAN (Laudon and Traver, 2004). A LAWN can be described as: “a flexible data communications system implemented as an extension to or an alternative for, a wired LAN” (Promix, 1998: 1). Figure 2 highlights the wireless connectivity of devices in a WLAN.

Figure 2

The question arises: How do LANs and WLANs work? This is addressed in Exhibit 1

Exhibit 1: How do LANS and WLANs work?In the case of a LAN, the server acts as a librarian, storing programs and data files for network users. The server determines who gets access to what and in what sequence. Servers may be powerful PCs with large hard-disk capacity, workstations, minicomputers, or mainframes, although specialized computers are available for this purpose. The network gateway is generally a communications processor that can connect dissimilar networks by translating from one set of protocols to another. A router is used to route packets of data through several connected LANs to a WAN. LAN technology consists of cabling (twisted wire, coaxial, or fibre-optic cable) or wireless technology (in the case of a LAWN) that links individual computer devices, network interface cards (which are special adapters service as interfaces to the cable), and software to control LAN activities. The LAN network interface card specifies the transmission rate, the size of message units, the addressing information attached to each message, and network topology (Ethernet utilizes a bus topology, for example). LANs may take the form of client/server networks, in which the server provides data and application programs to “client” computers on the network or hey may use a peer-to-peer architecture (Laudon and Laudon, 2000: 270-271).WLANs use electromagnetic airwaves (radio or infrared) to communicate information from one point to another without relying on any physical connection.
Radio waves are often referred to as radio carriers because they simply perform the function of delivering energy to a remote receiver. The data being transmitted is superimposed on the radio carrier so that it can be accurately extracted at the receiving end. This is generally referred to as modulation of the carrier by the information being transmitted. Once data is superimposed (modulated) onto the radio carrier, the radio signal occupies more than a single frequency, since the frequency or bit rate of the modulating information adds to the carrier. In a typical LAWN configuration, a transmitter/receiver (transceiver) device, called an access point, connects to the wired network from a fixed location using standard cabling. At a minimum, the access point receives, buffers, and transmits data between the LAWN and the wired network infrastructure. A single access point can support a small group of users and can function within a range of less than one hundred to several hundred feet. The access point (or the antenna attached to the access point) is usually mounted high but may be mounted essentially anywhere that is practical as long as the desired radio coverage is obtained. End users access the LAWN through LAWN adapters, which are implemented as PC cards in notebook or palmtop computers, as cards in desktop computers, or integrated within hand-held computers. LAWN adapters provide an interface between the client network operating system (NOS) and the airwaves via an antenna. The nature of the wireless connection is transparent to the NOS (Promix, 1998: 1-3).

 

Despite the obvious similarities between LANs and WLANs, they present different opportunities and challenges for firms. As a result, the question arises: Can WLANS replace LANs? Whilst this report will examine some of the technical rationale behind this argument, including aspects such as connectivity and security differences, the focus is on whether there is a strategic argument for WLANs to replace LANs in firms. After all, this is important to establishing the connection between information and communication technology (ICT) strategies, in this case with regards to WLANs and LANs and a firm’s ability to achieve and sustain competitive advantage. In this area, probably the largest contribution distinguishing WLANs and LANs is in the different ways of working that is facilitates, which have had a significant impact on firm costs and profitability. IBM will be used as a case study to illustrate this point.

Research Methods
This report draws entirely on secondary data, including academic books and journals, as well as company reports and white papers. No forms of document analysis, such as content analysis, semiotics or hermeneutics, were performed. Bryman (2004) cites a number of limitations of using secondary data, especially in isolation, although it does prove a cost-effective and easy way to access information. The author recognizes the limitations of the data collection method.

Wireless LANs vs. Cables: Different Ways of Working
The debate as to whether WLANs can replace LANs is not a straightforward one in the sense that it is not black or white. Both have their advantages and limitations. The sub-sections that follow aim to highlight these advantages and limitation, as well as highlighting the adventitious affect that WLANs have on ways of working, which provides the strongest argument to promote WLANs ahead of LANs.

WLANs vs. LANs: Pros and Cons
The pros and cons of LANs are relatively straight forward. LANs are particularly useful where high volumes of data need to be transmitted, such as video transmissions and graphics. However, they suffer from two main weaknesses. First, they are very inflexible. As a result, moving LANs typically requires the purchase of new wires. Second, they are very expensive, both in the upfront cost and in maintenance. However, the two key advantages of LANs, high transmission capacities and good security, are probably the two biggest weaknesses for WLANs. The use of radio waves makes WLANs prone to hackers – man in the middle attacks and session hijacking – aiming to gain access to sensitive information. Certainly the use of wired equivalent privacy (WEP) encryption and wireless network sniffers are options that have been introduced, but these are far from perfect and many WLANs remain under-protected. Another problem is the reliance that WLANs have on battery technology, which can significantly limit their sustained use. However, perhaps the biggest problem is WLANs limited transmission capacity and the large cost associated with current transmission rates, despite considerable improvement in recent years. Nonetheless, WLANs have considerable advantages compared to LANs. WLANs simplify many of the installation and configuration issues that plague network managers since only the access points of WLANs require cabling. As a result, once configured, WLANs can be moved to different locations with little or no modification. Initial installation costs and maintenance costs are much lower. Installation and use is considerably easier (Laudon and Laudon, 2000; Laudon and Traver, 2004). However, the biggest advantage is the flexibility they offer, providing the opportunity for firms to completely change their working practices. This key advantage will be discussed in the next subsection.

Different Ways of Working: The Case of IBM
Firms are using flexible working practices, what QinetiQ and IBM call the “On Demand Workplace” to build competitive advantage. The logic follows that firms’ front line operations, such as customer relationship management and customer services, as well as back office support functions require greater flexibility to meet changing customer needs. In this way, workforce flexibility equates to increases in productive time on the job and customer satisfaction levels. At the same time, workspace is a key expense for firms, costing somewhere between £7,500 and £19,000 per workstation per annum. The natural inclination of firms has been to transform, rather than merely redesign the workplace, to both reduce costs and increase profitability. One well known success story is IBM. IBM uses laptop computers, handheld devices, smart phones (and technologies such as Bluetooth), WANs and faster, more secure WLANs to enable its employees to work anywhere, at any time. The associated benefits of such flexible working have been set at an average annual saving per employee of £10,000, a reduction in real estate costs of between 40 and 60 percent, a decrease in employee absenteeism by as much as 25 percent and 30 to 40 percent more satisfied employees (QinetiQ, 2003). The business case for WLANs is also strengthened by falling equipment costs, especially the price of notebook computers and wireless network adaptors (ALLnet, 2003). At a national level, is has been estimated that inefficiencies in offices throughout Britain costs business more than £135 billion per annum, whilst a better, more flexible workplace could increase total productivity some 20 percent (Gensler, 2005). However, it should perhaps be mentioned as a cautionary note that some reports are starting to suggest that the flexible workplace is starting to destroy the social fabric of the workplace, ‘leaving workers cold’ (BJAM, 2005).

Conclusion & Recommendations
WLANs can replace cables, but the question arises, are we ready for cables to be replaced entirely? The answer is no. The technology driving WLANs is still very much in its development phase as opposed to LANs, which have reached a level of maturity. Clearly the long-term benefits to be achieved through WLANs suggest that LANs will eventually become largely redundant, but this appears some time off. Issues of battery technology, connection speeds and security all need to be addressed before such a future starts to become a possibility. Nonetheless, the rate of technological development in this area is extremely fast. It therefore remains to be seen whether WLANs take off faster than anticipated or are themselves threatened by some new technological development. That said, the advantages to be gained through changes in the way we work and the cost and productivity advantages conferred as a result lead to the recommendation that firms focus their future investment towards WLANs rather than LANs.

References
ALLnet (2003) Overcoming inhibitors to WLAN adoption, ALLnet White Paper: www.allnet.co.uk [Accessed 16 March 2006].

BJAM (2005) Hot desking leaves workers cold, British Journal of Administrative Management, 47: 8.

Bryman, A. (2004) Social Research Methods, 2nd edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gensler (2005) These four walls: The real British office, Gensler: www.gensler.com [Accessed 16 March 2006].

Laudon, K.C. and Laudon, J.P. (2000) Managing Information Systems: Organization and Technology in the networked Enterprise, 6th edition. London: Prentice Hall.

Laudon, K.C. and Traver, C.G. (2004) E-Commerce: Business, Technology, Society, 2nd edition. Boston, MA: Pearson Addison Wesley.

Promix (1998) What is a wireless LAN?, Promix White Paper: http://www.sss-mag.com/pdf/proximwhatwlan.pdf [Accessed 16 March 2006].

QinetiQ (2003) Creating competitive advantage through the “On Demand Workplace”, Executive Perspectives by QinetiQ: www.qinetiq.com [Accessed 16 March 2006].

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