Wireless networks are becoming faster, more affordable and easier to adopt than ever. Growing small businesses that have adopted a wireless solution are already reporting immediate paybacks in higher productivity, flexible application mobility and greater worker satisfaction. Roughly 228,000 small businesses currently have remote access capabilities built into their networks for security monitoring and, according to America Marketing Institute, the number will double over the next 12 months.

A wireless infrastructure can make it easier to reconfigure your office space as your company grows and changes. Also, the total cost of a wireless local area network (LAN) is relatively inexpensive--it's become very affordable in the past few years, and prices continue to drop. When you take into account productivity gains, both inside the office and at public "hot spots," going wireless is an obvious choice, especially when compared to the cost of running a Cat 5 network LAN cable throughout a building.

If you're interested in setting up a wireless network at your company, this guide will walk you through the steps needed to evaluate the role wireless networking technologies might play in your company's overall networking solution, and help you understand the steps you need to take to implement the solution.

Step 1: Understand it. Learn about the benefits of wireless and how it can help your business save money and be more productive.

Wired networks may give the appearance of a busy office full of the latest equipment, but in reality, wires can be an inefficient networking medium. They can limit signal strength as well as make it more difficult to expand and reorganize your network configuration.

Wireless networking is a viable and affordable alternative that offers the benefits of making your environment more flexible. A wireless infrastructure allows you to effortlessly reconfigure your office space as your company grows and changes, easily extend connectivity and also allows employees to be mobile more easily.

Even though the cost of wireless LAN hardware and software can be slightly more expensive, this is offset by the wired LAN cabling and installation costs you can avoid. Add to that the soft-dollar saving benefits associated with wireless LAN and the convenience of being able to move around in a facility and stay connected, and your overall costs are lower still.

Step 2: Plan it. You should first conduct an assessment that includes an anticipated return on investment, and then investigate what it will take to integrate wireless technologies with your existing infrastructure.

Review the advantages and consider the benefits to your organization:

  • Reduced cost of installation. It may be significantly less expensive to install wireless access points compared to wiring your office with Ethernet capabilities.
  • Flexibility. If you regularly expand or reorganize your office space, or need to accommodate a variety of network configurations, the rapid transition time from one configuration to another that wireless provides can help reduce your network downtime. In addition, you won't have to incur the costs associated with physically rewiring office space.
  • Convenient information access. With wireless, you'd have the ability to extend access to key information to anyone on your staff, from anywhere in the office, even when they aren't physically connected to your wired local area network (LAN) connection. Do members of your staff regularly work away from their desks or stations, but could benefit from anytime, anywhere access to important data? Could you improve productivity by increasing access to important company systems? Do you have business processes you could streamline by reducing the number of times employees have to go back to their wired connections?
  • Wireless LANs are the way to go, especially where there's no existing wired network. This is especially true in leased offices, where you can't go knocking holes in walls

You should next consider what integration points you'll need to address for the solution to work:

  • Evaluate your current and future networking needs. How is your current networking infrastructure configured? How many workstations, offices and conference rooms are connected to the network? How many are not connected that you would like to connect? How many people use the computers and communications systems in your company now? Does your staff conduct business at locations away from their primary work area? What kind of equipment does your staff use? Are they mobile with notebook computers and PDAs or do the majority of your workers use desktop systems? Do those who would benefit most from wireless, mobile access already use notebooks? And if you're in a leased building with no existing wired network, setting up a wireless network is must simpler than knocking holes in the walls to install your network cables.
  • Formulate a plan. The equipment you buy and the way you configure your wireless network will be driven by your business needs and plan, so it's important to develop a plan before you spend any money on equipment or other resources.

Step 3: Do it. Once you have a plan in place that defines how you want to add wireless networking capabilities to your office space, you can get down to the business of actually setting up your wireless network. It's easier than you might think. The first step involves understanding the equipment involved in a wireless network.

Wireless LAN equipment consists of two main components:

  1. Wireless clients, which are any devices capable of communicating over a wireless LAN, such as a notebook computer, printer or handheld.
  2. Access points, that is, the centers of the wireless-to-wired LAN connectivity. These points aggregate wireless radio signals and then connect the two LANs. The access point is generally book-sized. It contains a radio transceiver, communications and encryption software, and an Ethernet port for a cable connection to a hub or a switch on the wired LAN.

Your next step is to actually build a wireless LAN, which you'll do just like this:

  1. Identify the equipment you want to buy, such as wireless notebooks, access points, wireless LAN adapters and wireless cards.
  2. Determine the number of users who need to have access to the network. This will help you determine the number of access points you'll need.
  3. Plan for the connection to your wired LAN, probably in a central location and in an open environment. Your goal is to maximize the access point's wireless range. The quoted range is a maximum of 300 feet, but that's very dependant on the existing environment--walls, water pipes, cables and so on all could decrease the range. The best thing to do is complete a site survey first; if that's not possible, assume a maximum range of 150 feet, as 300 could decrease throughput.
  4. Configure your wireless devices to work with your network.
  5. Test the installation before it goes live. Using link test software, you should test for the percent of data sent correctly, the time it takes to receive a response from the destination device, and the strength of the transmitted signal.
  6. Establish a procedure to manage your wireless LAN.

Step 4: Use it. Because wireless communications are transmitted through the air rather than over a closed cable, you'll need to implement some wireless-specific security measures to ensure that your wireless communications are secure. Wireless solutions use three primary tactics:

  1. MAC (media access control) addressing. This ensures the network access point you purchase supports MAC which restricts network access by unauthorized devices by assigning each network card a unique hardware identification number.
  2. WEP encryption. It's essentially a complicated software algorithm that scrambles data as it's sent and unscrambles it as soon as it's received, keeping it safe in transit. It also ensures that you can easily upgrade your access cards as new wireless access standards emerge.
  3. Traditional VPN (Virtual Private Network) securities controls. This allows users outside of your system to have access to it. Businesses that use remote access almost always use VPN and combined with the other tactics makes your wireless network extremely secure.

VPNs work by encrypting data before it's sent over a wireless (or wired) link, so even if someone intercepts the transmission, the data is secure. Many larger companies use VPNs, but smaller companies may also just rely on standard wireless encryption. This will be okay if the wireless LAN is only used internally, but if you plan to use public 'hot spots', you will need to use a VPN.

Step 5: Support it. If you find you need additional help or support, or are planning a larger-scale implementation, there are numerous suppliers and consultants that can offer additional information and support. Hewlett-Packard, for example, offers access to mobility and wireless experts via live chat or via phone at (800) 888-0262. These suppliers and consultants can help you understand your options, configure your network, set up your systems, and get you up and running quickly and efficiently.

Richard Stone is a wireless and mobility solutions manager for HP Americas.