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Data center managers not fixed on wireless

Although WiMax offers much promise as a way to wirelessly back up the data center, some data center managers are more than happy to let others help the technology through its adolescence.

When it comes to wireless technology in the data center, think of that time-honored question heard mostly from the back seat of a "wood"-paneled station wagon on a family vacation:

"Are we there yet?"

More specifically, is wireless a pervasive technology in the data center yet? Should it be?

It isn't for Neil Ruffalo, vice president of IT at Acuity Mutual Insurance. While most of his company's Sheboygan, Wis., campus is wired up for wireless right now -- aside from using wireless for a T1 line -- there's no reason to capitalize on all the wireless capabilities for his data center.

"There's no big business driver to push it," he said.

Three reasons to go wireless

There are three reasons for a data center manager to think about implementing wireless for enterprise use, according to Craig J. Mathias, an analyst with Farpoint Group in Ashland, Mass. One is where you have physical constraints in the data center in which case wireless would create some breathing room. The other two reasons include when wireless is cheaper than wire on a lifecycle basis, and when mobility is a factor.

"If one of those three reasons isn't satisfied, you don't need wireless," Mathias said. "[Besides] what's the problem with running a cable?" he added.

Mathias isn't one of those people who wax wireless just because the technology is cool. He thinks wire is a good thing that data center managers should use.

"The nice thing about wire is that it's its own little world whereas airwaves are shared [and] conditions can change from moment to moment," he said.

Scared wireless

In other words, when you send a signal into the air, you don't know for sure how it will come out on the other end. The fact that those signals become part of a shared environment is worrisome to some people.

"I've still got security issues with wireless," declared Chris Graham, chief information officer of Church Mutual Insurance Co. in Merrill, Wis. Because his data center is home to loads of sensitive data (patient information) that's subject to federal compliance laws (e.g., Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act), Graham feels he can't take a chance of that information ending up in someone else's hands. For now, wire is the way.

"The wireless companies have done a great job marketing it [and] generating demand, but there are still security weaknesses for deployments," he said. "We've decided not to use wireless technology until we can figure out how to better protect what we're broadcasting." Graham doesn't foresee that happening before 2007.

While Graham is understandably conservative when it comes to protecting customer and claimant data, wireless technology has made security strides.

WiMax, with its short range and high-speed ability to carry hefty data rates, offers data center managers a wireless option that comes with built-in encryption measures.

"Any fears over wireless security should be tempered with the knowledge that there are solutions for the problem," said Mike Disabato, senior analyst with Burton Group in Chicago. He's seen some clients use wireless technology to connect their data centers to another backup location -- with tangible benefits, including redundancy, cost reduction and the security of built-in encryption.

Still, Disabato understands why some CIOs might cringe when the words "wireless" and "data center" are used in the same sentence, in no small part because of Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP) problems with Wi-Fi.

"If they listen and understand that there are solutions built into the technology, they'll understand that wireless use in the data center is not a bad idea," he said.

Hurry up and wait

Still, it doesn't look like data center managers are rushing to the wireless well to take a drink. Cindy Borovick, director of data center networks for Framingham, Mass.-based consultancy IDC, said wireless deployments in data centers today are minimal and believes the traditional interconnects in the data center will hold steady over the next five years.

"That said," she pointed out in an e-mail, "wireless ports in the data center will grow for administrators and administrative PCs.

"We believe it's about a $200 million opportunity worldwide today," Borovick said.

In a report published in March, Robert Frances Group Inc. in Westport, Conn., said WiMax products will continue to appear in many service provider trials and are possible replacements for T1 circuits and DSL lines. But analysts also cautioned enterprises to take a wait-and-see attitude with the technology until cost and coverage availability issues are sorted out.

Validating customer uncertainty over security, RFG analysts further said the immature nature if WiMax means potential risks for early adopters. It's "too much risk" for Church Mutual's Graham, and a risk Acuity's Ruffalo is willing to let others take for now.

"It's still down the road a ways," Ruffalo said.

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