Chris SilvaWriting on technologies for the branch office often times places me across the domains of mobility and non-mobile network infrastructure. Increasingly, in client inquiry calls, the question of "how do I optimize my branch office infrastructure" comes up and takes many forms. I'll attempt to address the most common of these branch office optimization scenarios in a series of posts. This being the first of such posts, I'll tackle one of the more basic optimization questions; connectivity for the small branch office.

In many organizations, the pure issue of connectivity for the branch can be a headache for IT Ops. When 10 – 20 users, or even fewer in many small or remote offices, are in need of access many organizations seek the most flexible, least infrastructure-intensive solution. In many cases spectre of unmanaged Wi-Fi access points at these branches and the related on-site support they may require is a deal-breaker, outweighing the operational benefit of simple, pervasive Wi-Fi connectivity using commodity hardware. Controller-based solutions, however, can seem overkill from either an infrastructure expense standpoint or in terms of sheer infrastructure complexity when contrast to the lack of or need for reduction in branch office IT staff. So, what does an organization seeking to "light up" its small branch offices with little or no infrastructure do? They outsource connectivity, of course. 

Many firms seeking to replicate "wired equivalent" connectivity speed for users in a small branch have opted for mobile broadband solutions from GSM and CDMA carriers. Based on current offerings, HSPA and EVDO-based offerings provide users ~1Mbit of uplink throughput, and about half that downlink will serve users with roughly equivalent speed to that of a fragmented (read: shared) DSL connection provided by local wireline carriers. A fair solution, but at $50 – $60 per month for high-limit plans, cost quickly becomes a factor.

Enter Novatel Wireless. a vendor primarily known for USB, PCMCIA and Express Card dongles for connecting existing hardware such as laptops to carrier networks. Novatel has harnessed the power of 3G EVDO for backhaul and Wi-Fi for access distribution in one device. The Novatel MiFi 2200, announced yesterday by US CDMA carrier Sprint for availability in June and also announced this month by US CDMA carrier rival Verizon Wireless for availability next week changes the dynamic of 3G as a connectivity option for the branch. As many reviewers have expounded, the ability to share 3G signal using commodity Wi-Fi is a dynamic-changer for power users on the go, but the real benefit will be seen by small groups of users able to establish and share ad-hoc connectivity anywhere 3G signal is available. This solution can extend the reach of the 3G many organizations are already using to connect branch office workers to the WAN while cutting costs of maintaining multiple data subscriptions.

In the case of Sprint, the potential to support branches of 10+ users using a MiFi device becomes more intruiging as future device roadmaps show the next generation sporting a two chipsets (WiFi and WiMax) capable of connecting to the carrier's WiMax network (co-operated with Clearwire and other partners) which will allow the WiMax network (offering upwards of 6Mbit uplink) to provide backhaul for and entire branch office while still being priced at the cost of 1-2 of the aircards that it will replace.  

The promise of WiMax to solve connectivity ills has been long promised and, at present and in all fairness, the Sprint-Clearwire Clear network is limited to few geographic locations. If aggressive roadmaps are to be believed, though, cost-effective connectivity for branch sites is not far in the future. In the meantime, for small (sub 10-user) branch sites that are supporting multiple aircards for basic connectivity have a new, economy-friendly ally in the MiFi2200.

By Chris Silva

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