The Cutting Edge: New Technologies to Watch

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New technologies are touted every day as a way to increase productivity and decrease the time you spend doing mundane tasks. With so many to choose from, which should you spend your time learning about? Which ones will benefit you? And which ones will be used within corporations in the near future? To simplify a general topic, let’s look at several different areas: wireless, telecommunications and software.

Wireless
Everything is becoming wireless. It is unavoidable. The allure of mobility, accessibility and flexibility fuels the intense growth of this industry as it worms its way into networks, gadgets and even our own bodies.

Wireless LANs (local area networks) have become commonplace with the introduction of the IEEE 802.11 standards and the Wi-Fi (wireless fidelity) certification for compliant devices. The wireless industry is growing faster than other networking markets, and knowledge of wireless networking is essential. Your business either has or will be implementing a wireless infrastructure, and even if it has no plans to implement one, you still must be on the lookout for unauthorized wireless devices that might appear on your network.

Wireless networks are being added to existing networks to gain more flexibility. The decrease in cost and increase in quality of wireless equipment has made it feasible and cost effective for businesses to adopt the technology. Moreover, wireless LANs are easy to upgrade and expand. Extra cable is often installed in wired networks for future expansion. It is cheaper to install a few more lines initially than to have additional cable installed later. Unfortunately, that extra installed cable might become outdated before it is actually used, and new cable will have to be installed. Wireless networks, on the other hand, can be upgraded by purchasing new access points and cards for workstations.

Home users who found wiring their house prohibitively expensive are now making use of the many brands of small wireless routers primarily to share Internet access and roam around the house without losing their connection. The more savvy users are finding alternative uses for previous-generation computers such as file, print, game and Web servers. Expect to get questions about home implementations and requests for tech support from friends and co-workers.

A credential that systems and network administrators might want to look at is the CWNA (Certified Wireless Network Administrator) from Planet3 Wireless. The certification is vendor-neutral and covers wireless standards, network implementation, RF principles, security, troubleshooting and site surveys.

The latest IEEE standard, 802.11n, supports higher speeds between 108 and 200 Mbps while still operating in the 2.4 GHz range. It will also be backward-compatible with current “b” and “g” devices. Becoming familiar with the standard through RFCs will aid in migrating quickly.

Another IEEE specification, 802.16, is used in constructing wireless MANs (metropolitan area networks) that can span a city or county. Similar to the Wi-Fi certification for 802.11 devices, the certification for 802.16 devices is called WiMAX (Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access). WiMAX can be used to connect sites to ISPs and also for wireless mesh networks.

For ISPs, WiMAX is a “last mile” solution comparable to cable and DSL. It provides approximately 70 Mbps of shared bandwidth between the sites, so about 70 sites could share the medium at speeds similar to current broadband offerings. Operating in the 2-to-11 and 10-to-66 GHz range, networks could extend about five miles from the central office. This design, like many others, suffers from a single point of failure. If the WiMAX central-access device goes down, all connections cease.

WiMax used in mesh networking, while not improving bandwidth due to it being a shared medium, does increase reliability because the network still functions if one site is down. The mesh can also be used to extend the network further, although speeds will decrease as you move outward in the mesh. Mesh networks are useful as temporary solutions, for example as disaster sites or during construction. They also serve a purpose in areas where no definable central point of access exists.

A large advantage Wi-Fi and WiMAX offer is their flexibility of location. Another wireless technology has gained strength through its flexibility as well. Bar codes have made shopping, inventory management and many other tasks easier, but they have a number of disadvantages. Bar codes take up valuable space on packaging and they can be difficult to find. The solution to this and more: RFID.

RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) tags can be placed inside products, saving space and making for a more attractive item. Also, items do not have to be within line of sight in order to be detected. An entire pallet of inventory can be checked without moving one box. The proverbial “needle in the haystack” can be identified effortlessly.

RFID tags are small devices consisting of an antenna and a number encoded on a microchip that can be embedded into almost anything. Devices can be as thin as a piece of paper and some are even embedded into the skin. So how does it work? Most RFID tags, called passive RFID tags, can only send information once a signal is received. Once an antenna receives a signal, the resulting electrical current produced is used to transmit a response to the querying device containing an identification number. This number can link vast amounts of information to any device with an embedded chip.

The problem we have with data is that there is so much of it that finding relevant data becomes complicated. RFID makes large databases more useful because they are context-driven when filtered by specific RFID tag information. Databases updated with RFID information simplify the process of obtaining information related to your task and allow automation of other tasks, making you more efficient in the process.

If you have experience with Wi-Fi, RFID or WiMAX, the Wireless# certification validates a basic understanding of these technologies as well as Bluetooth, IR and ZigBee. The certification is brand-new and entry-level, but it might prove to be a good starting point for those interested in the wireless field.

Telecommunications
The biggest technology in telecommunications today is VoIP (Voice over IP). In this technology, analog voice conversations are converted to digital signals and packaged inside IP packets to be transmitted over the Internet just like any other data. The Internet is a global medium, so calls can be placed to almost anywhere. Why would anyone want to do this?

In recent years, telcos have been the main adopters. Many telcos have striven to convert their circuit-switched networks to packet-switched networks for call routing and data processing. This change allows a single network to be used for multiple purposes, which helps telcos use extra network capacity and also reduces the complexities of managing two separate networks.

These days, the concept of VoIP has spread from telcos to businesses and homes. Home users ask why they should pay for Internet and phone services if the two can be combined for nominally more than the cost of one. Businesses have even more to gain, as current telephone switching systems are significantly complex. A legion of extensions and voicemail boxes can be migrated to a few servers or a specialized VoIP gateway. At the user end, the technology is usually implemented using a VoIP enabled phone, an ATA (analog telephone adapter) or by using a computer.

VoIP phones resemble any other phone except for their interface. A VoIP phone is connected using a RJ45 connector, the same connector used between your router and computers, instead of a RJ11 phone connector.

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Eric Vanderburg

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