By Richard Barnwell

There is no doubt that the network is evolving. Triggered by convergence, intelligence moving inside the network and a proliferation in the number and type of networked devices, networks have grown to become an even more essential element of an organization's IT infrastructure as they continue to be shaped by the following key trends:

Convergence of common services on a shared IP-based infrastructure: We see data, voice, multimedia, storage and new services such as location and RFID-enabled technologies on these converged networks. This began on the wired networks, with the wireless networks now quick to follow.

Capabilities move "inside" the network: Capabilities that traditionally lived outside the network are becoming features or equities of the network. Application-aware message routing, security policies and quality of service, and provision of location services are just some examples of these capabilities.

The number/variety of network connected devices proliferates: More and more devices are gaining network connectivity either through embedded network capabilities or aftermarket retrofit capability such as the attachment of an RFID tag, sensor mote or device server.

While these trends apply to both wired and wireless networks, it is important to examine how they're shaping Wi-Fi (IEEE 802.11)-based wireless networks, which makes an interesting study because of their ubiquity in homes, in organizations and public spaces. This is driving rapid innovation around the Wi-Fi technology as organizations strive to maximize the value from their infrastructure investment.

First, convergence is driving organizations to make available the same IP based services they offer on their wired network and Wi-Fi network, therefore we see Wi-Fi evolving from its data focus to add support for voice and multimedia services. We also see the emergence of new services with greater affinity to wireless networks than wired ones, such as location tracking of assets, people and products. Ongoing standards efforts in the IEEE 802.11 working group focus on ensuring 802.11 is robust enough to support this convergence of services.

Second, capabilities that are moving "inside" the network are increasing as Wi-Fi networks add support for new, converged services. One example is the ability of the Wi-Fi network to determine and report the location of wireless devices in proximity of the network which treats location as an equity of the network in the same manner as quality of service or security.

Third, based on the ubiquitous deployment and growing capabilities of Wi-Fi networks we are witnessing a proliferation of new devices becoming Wi-Fi enabled. There is a wide variety of devices, but following provides a general classification of the type of equipment:

• Personal computing devices: laptops, tablets and PDAs

• Voice-oriented devices: mobile VoIP phones, dual mode cell phones and "open mic" voice badges

• Assets/Non computing equipment with embedded Wi-Fi: medical devices and diagnostics equipment

• Entertainment/home appliances with embedded Wi-Fi: music players, TV and refrigerators

• Active RFID tags which can be affixed to physical objects including assets, people or inventory. The location and state of these physical objects can then be tracked via the Wi-Fi network.

Wi-Fi-based Asset Tracking is a great example of these broader networking trends at work. By converging the tracking service on its existing Wi-Fi network an organization is able to leverage the full potential of its network infrastructure investment and avoid the expense of installing and managing a separate, dedicated overlay network of readers which has been the historical path adopted when Real Time Location capabilities have been required.

As the network gains more intelligence it becomes a more vital enabler in assisting organizations to gain insight to their real-world operations. With standards based networks like Wi-Fi providing location data, we see for the first time a cost effective way for organizations to gain near real-time insight to the physical location of key people and assets. Organizations can now build off these network capabilities to provide even greater levels of insight. For example, a nurse searching for an IV pump in a hospital would have the ability not only to know the pump's location but whether it's being used or out of order.

Today, location-based systems can feed real-world physical location information into an IT system to obtain real-time visibility into the state of their physical operations which they can use to make more informed decisions. It is clear that as the network continues to evolve in the years ahead it will play an increasingly important role in revolutionizing the next phase of wireless connectivity and location-based information.

About the Author

Richard Barnwell is CTO of PanGo Networks