Cutting the Wires at Novell

By Dan Orzech

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To see what the network of the future will look like, just head to Provo, Utah. There, at the headquarters of software maker Novell Inc, you will find a wireless network that gives Novell employees near-universal access to the company's network from almost anywhere on the corporate campus.

Novell began installing wireless access points on its Provo campus about two years ago. Today, more than 90% of Novell's 6,000 employees have access to the wireless network, not only at company headquarters, but at any of Novell's approximately 120 offices around the world.

The result is a seamless view of the company network that essentially makes geography irrelevant for Novell employees. Workers can travel from Provo to company offices in Cambridge, Mass, or Frankfurt, Germany, and have full access to their data and applications, without having to find a wall jack to plug into. The company has even put wireless access points at the local Provo, Utah, airport, so employees waiting for a plane can get on the company network from the boarding lounge.

Novell executives decided to go wireless after seeing that everyone at meetings wanted to be able to connect to the company network. "A group would reserve a conference room," recalls Tracy Young, the Novell network engineer in charge of the wireless network, "and it would be wired, but only have five or six jacks. So they'd call the IT department and say, 'we've got 20 people here, can you come and set up a switch on the table and run patch cords for us, so everyone can be on the network?'"

"We had one man who would run around and just do that," says Young. "We have a lot of conference rooms, and it was practically a full time job. Now, we don't have anybody doing that."

Going Mobile
Novell experienced essentially no problems implementing the network, says Young. It took about 30 days to set up 200 wireless access points at company headquarters in Provo, which provide wireless access to the 2,000 employees working there. Even the outside courtyards where employees sometimes eat lunch have wireless coverage.

Once the wireless network became available, says Young, "it took off like crazy. Everybody had to have it."

Today, about half of the employees at the Provo campus are logged in over the wireless network at any given moment. "Our employees find it extremely useful to be able to move around freely with their laptops," says Young. "They can go to a meeting and pull up their documents in a conference room, and if others at the meeting don't have a document, they can send it to them then and there."

New employees starting work at Novell today are issued a computer, which is usually a laptop, with a docking station connected to a full-size keyboard and monitor. The laptops come with Proxim (formerly Agere) Silver or Gold wireless cards already installed. Novell is also using Proxim's wireless access points.

Novell has two offices in Japan which are 90% wireless, but most Novell employees still have access to a hard-wired network connection at their desks. The advantage is speed: at 11 megabits/sec., Novell's 802.11b wireless network is not as fast as the hard-wired ethernet network.

The Proxim equipment can be upgraded to a 53 megabits/sec., 802.11a network, but Novell hasn't needed the additional speed yet, Young says. Unless workers are running very-high bandwidth applications, the wireless network usually has plenty of bandwidth. "Most users can't tell the difference," says Young -- who hasn't plugged his own machine into a wall in two years.

Next page: How Novell protects its network from hackersHacking Novell's network gets you onto... the Internet
One of the big concerns about wireless networks has been security. The Proxim access points Novell uses require a network name, or password, to get onto the wireless network, says Young. That is hardcoded into Novell's laptops, which serves to keep employees on the right network, particularly in smaller sales offices located in buildings where several companies' wireless networks may overlap.

While the network name also keeps casual passers-by from logging on, Novell does not rely on that for security. Instead, it uses a firewall and portal to secure the corporate network, so employees -- or anyone trying to hack the network, for that matter -- must go through the same authentication regardless of whether they're logging in over the wireless network or from the Internet at large.

Logging on the wireless network itself only provides access to the Internet. That's useful for visitors: Novell can give them the password to the wireless network, so they can use their own laptops and wireless cards to get on the Internet. Without a login to the corporate portal, however, they cant access Novell's own network, says Young.

Unlike many companies, Novell doesn't use Wired Equivalent Privacy, or WEP, to encrypt the data on its wireless network. That doesn't mean the data on the network isn't encrypted however: using the same technologies it sells to its customers, all data on the Novell network is encrypted by the applications transmitting it, regardless of whether it travels over wires or over the airwaves.

You can take it with you
Even though wireless ethernet cards are more expensive than the wired versions, Novell finds it has saved money by going to wireless, because of the high cost of running cables through the walls at new offices. "It was running us $200,000 or more to cable up a local office for 50 to 100 employees," says Young. "Putting in wireless access points costs us about $20,000."

What's more, says Young, if you install cable in an office, and then have to move, that investment is gone. "With wireless," he says, "you can move out of an office and take almost all of that $20,000 with you."

While the cost savings are nice, the real benefits of the wireless network come from the convenience and increased productivity it gives workers. Two years after installing it, says Young, Novell workers barely even notice the wireless network. "It's a part of everyday life which people take for granted," he says. "When I hear about it the most is when is when our employees come back from other companies, and say, 'I don't know how they live without this.'"