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Is retail ready for the wireless revolution?

By Retail Technology | Wednesday April 24 2013

Ian Kilpatrick, secure IP infrastructure specialist, discusses the rapidly growing adoption of wireless and what it means for the future of IT networks in retail

The retail industry is one of the prime users of wireless technology. Today, with the continuing economic pressures on the industry, wireless use is likely to grow further as retailers look for ways to reduce their costs, both front and back of shop. 

2012 saw a huge growth in wireless use, fuelled by factors such as mobility, strong tablet sales, ‘Bring Your Own Device’ [BYOD] and the consumer deployment of devices which support the upcoming wireless standards, 802.11ac and 802.11ad. 

Retail to reject wired networks

Ian Kilpatrick, chairman of secure internet protocol (IP) infrastructure specialist and international value added distributor (VAR) Wick Hill Group, predicted that 2013 and beyond will see continuing growth in wireless networks, with a move in many retail organisations to wireless actually replacing wired networks. This, he contends, will create a sea change in working practices and operational management.

“The new wireless standard 802.11ac should be ratified in the second half of 2013 and will provide WLAN [wireless local area network] throughput of at least 1Gbps, first generation, and up to 7Gbps in the future. 802.11ad, with multi-Gbps throughput, is likely to be ratified in 2014.” 

Kilpatrick said manufacturers are already delivering consumer devices designed to both these standards. “Home users are already getting the improved performance and user experience that these standards will deliver and are increasingly bringing these expectations into work,” he added.

Catching up on wired standards

Currently, Kilpatrick explained that in many retail organisations, wireless is not of the same standard as wired. “It has limited, rather than total, coverage, with cold spots, as well as performance and access limitations. Retail environments, in particular, can create lots of obstacles to efficient wireless reception,” he said.
“This situation is not sustainable,” he continued. “Mobility is an unstoppable wave and 4G will increase performance expectations. Furthermore, retail organisations need the increased productivity that mobile devices can bring. The move to wireless raises many challenges and opportunities.”

Security, he said, is a significant challenge, as are network access control, ID management, mobile device management, device remediation, intrusion prevention and management infrastructure. "Retailers have to be especially conscious of security needs, because of PCI [Payment Card Industry] regulations and potential fines,” he added.
Key to success will be deployment pre-planning, risk assessment and determining the policies to apply, according to Kilpatrick. “The changes in wireless standards provide a key opportunity for strategic planning. Most of today’s wireless deployments have been tactical, with more access points (APs0 added, often unstructured, to meet increasing user demand or deal with cold spots. 

Seize a one-time opportunity

“802.11ac will deliver the unfulfilled promise of the previous standard 802.11n, but with a focus on 5GHz rather than 2.4GHz. With 5GHz providing shorter range, but higher throughput, existing access point-based systems will be inadequate for the new requirements. The old 2.4GHz APs will become obsolete and this gives retailers a one-time opportunity to plan for a future working environment based on wireless, rather than wired LANs." 

He continued: “The move to 5GHz and beyond will create challenges for the old AP-based approach to coverage. With 2.4GHz, providing more coverage typically involves adding more APs. However, that has been shown to be increasingly self-limiting because interference between APs reduces coverage, rather than increasing it.”

To migrate will require entirely new APs, new antennas, upgraded or replaced controllers, and new switches or power-over-Ethernet (PoE) injectors. There will be multiple versions and phases of 802.11ac, so AP-based organisations will need to budget for ongoing infrastructure upgrading and replacement. 

An increasingly popular alternative to the AP approach (sometimes characterised as ‘breeding’) is the modular array approach. “An array can hold multiple directionally tuneable APs,” Kilpatrick said. “Unlike traditional broadcasting, directional focus minimises interference and enables clear control over geo overspill. Additionally, with the array-based approach, the APs can be slot-in cards, so can be easily and inexpensively replaced or upgraded, as traffic usage and capacity evolve.”
The secure IP infrastructure specialist stressed that we are at the beginning of a radical shift in the IT world. “Mobility, BYOD, multi-Gbps wireless and 4G are creating an unstoppable wave of change, fundamentally altering the working environment,” he concluded, predicting that, “the key beneficiaries in retail will be those who recognise that this is a sea change and plan accordingly, rather than treat it as an evolutionary change and have to play catch up”. 

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