Wireless is now critical (network) infrastructure

September 20, 2017

When I moved over to here a decade or so ago, we (the department) had a wireless network that was more or less glued together out of spare parts. One reason for this, beyond simply money, is that wireless networking was seen as a nice extra for us to offer to our users and thus not something we could justify spending a lot on. If we had to prioritize (and we did), wired networking was much higher up the heap than wireless. Wired networking was essential; the wireless was merely nice to have and offer.

I knew that wireless usage had grown and grown since then, of course; anyone who vaguely pays attention knows that, and the campus wireless people periodically share eye-opening statistics on how many active devices there are. You see tablets and smartphones all over (and I even have one of my own these days, giving me a direct exposure), and people certainly like using their laptops with wifi (even in odd places, although our machine room no longer has wireless access). But I hadn't really thought about the modern state of wireless until I got a Dell XPS 13 laptop recently and then the campus wireless networking infrastructure had some issues.

You see, the Dell XPS 13 has no onboard Ethernet, and it's not at all alone in that; most modern ultrabooks don't, for example. Tablets are obviously Ethernet-free, and any number of people around here use one as a major part of their working environment. People are even actively working through their phones. If the wireless network stops working, all of these people are up a creek and their work grinds to a halt. All of this has quietly turned wireless networking into relatively critical infrastructure. Fortunately our departmental wireless network is in much better shape now than it used to be, partly because we outsourced almost all of it to the university IT people who run the campus wireless network.

(We got USB Ethernet dongles for our recent laptops, but we're sysadmins with unusual needs, including plugging into random networks in order to diagnose problems. Not everyone with a modern laptop is going to bother, and not everyone who gets one is going to carry it around or remember where they put it or so on.)

This isn't a novel observation but it's something that's snuck up on me and before now has only been kind of an intellectual awareness. It wasn't really visceral until I took the XPS 13 out of the box and got to see the absence of an Ethernet port in person.

(The USB Ethernet dongle works perfectly well but it doesn't feel the same, partly because it's not a permanently attached part of the machine that is always there, the way the onboard wifi is.)

Written on 20 September 2017.
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Last modified: Wed Sep 20 01:22:01 2017
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