iPad's Dirty Little Secret
In Round 1, starting two years ago, IT admins girded themselves to fend off security vulnerabilities along with possible data leaks that iOS devices were feared to be bringing into the enterprise. The reality is, in most large companies, worries outsized the realities as slick mobile management policies and procedures have done a lot to limit the damage iOS does.
Enter Round 2, however, and iOS devices, coupled with all manner of mainly Android tablets and smartphones, may be bringing the network to its knees.
"The iPad is a serious enterprise network issue -- it's just that most enterprises don't know it yet," said Perry Correll, senior technologist at wireless networking company Xirrus. "IT admins have been focused on device management. They have ignored the connection issues.
"Speeds are slowing down on many networks. They just were not designed for a wireless world."
In most enterprises, the Internet infrastructure was designed to handle many devices that were hard-wired into the system. Usually, to accommodate visiting executives and guests, a little Wi-Fi capacity was layered in, with the thought that usage would be very limited.
"IT admins always saw Wi-Fi as a secondary network. That is why the problems have developed," said Correll.
Steve Garrison of Infoblox, a networking company, agreed: "Users are seeing downtime, sluggish response. The bottleneck right now is the network. Networks were built for a different era."
"Many enterprise networks have been on the edge of instability. When the unexpected comes along it can push the network over the edge," said Jim Steger, a principal at mobile consultancy Sonoma Partners. "Users now are bringing in devices that IT did not anticipate."
Steger added that in a mobile world perhaps because of hardware limitations, demands on bandwidth are aggravated. It just is more effective to do computing in the cloud than on a thin client but that may mean there is a lot of data shuttling back and forth to mobile devices. Said Steger: "Coders are not thinking about bandwidth issues when they are developing apps."
Antennae are small but demanding
A related networking issue is that tablets and smartphones to access the network need more and more powerful access points. "Because they have smaller antennas they need stronger Wi-Fi signals. A smart phone requires double the WiFi of a laptop," Correll.
A typical laptop, said Correll, has two sizable antennas for finding and connecting to Wi-Fi. A tablet usually has just one smaller antenna. A smartphone has one tiny antenna. To be reliable and to deliver the ubiquitous connectivity today's users demand the network, Correll added, "has to be designed with the weakness of the devices in mind."
But even with a network designed to provide plentiful throughput for feeble tablets and smartphones, the strain bring-your-own-device (BYOD) puts on the enterprise network probably will only magnify because, suddenly, many users are always armed with not one, but two devices.
Then too, smartphones may be a network problem, but the looming catastrophe is the proliferation of tablets such as iPad and Kindle Fire and BlackBerry Playbook. "Tablets are a killer in the amount of bandwidth they require," added Correll. "With a tablet I can watch ESPN, and I am generating five to 10 times the bandwidth I ever did on a smartphone."
Moore's Law may no longer apply to CPUs but that predicted inevitability of exponential growth definitely applies to network usage. This is why some experts insist the only cure is to get very granular in permitting and denying access.
Geoff Kreiling, a networking expert with Masergy, a networking company, elaborated: "The admin has to create policies to do application control and content filtering. You need to take a granular approach. This will take strain off the network. You can't stop it, you have to manage it."
He added that smart systems will permit access to Facebook, say, but deny access to games such as Farmville. That way users get to do what may be important staying in touch with status updates but they are not permitted to do bandwidth intensive activities that have no obvious enterprise benefits.
Enterprise networks now are entering a period of crisis. Solutions may be at hand but they need to be implemented and that, said many networking experts, just is not happening. Most enterprise IT admins apparently are trying to ignore this problem until it disappears but more likely it's the network that will disappear. That is why action needs to be taken, now.
"The network can be maintained but you have to act," said Kreiling.
As a busy freelance writer for more than 30 years, Rob McGarvey has written over 1,500 articles for many of the nation's leading publications ranging from Upside to the Harvard Business Review and The New York Times. He has covered mobility since the birth of the cellular industry and PCs since the 1980s. He writes often about networking and security issues. Somewhere in there he also files a regular "Mobility Matters" on mobile banking for the Credit Union Times. While he does most of his writing on a Samsung Chromebook, he admits to Macbook Air envy.