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Microsoft wireless net due for upgrade

Company's campuswide wireless network is "nearing end of life," says a senior director in firm's IT unit.

When Microsoft began installing its campuswide wireless network five years ago, it was something of a pioneer.

Microsofties scooped up the Net capabilities and soon everyone was surfing the Web during meetings. Five years later, though, the network is due for an overhaul.

"The equipment is nearing end-of-life," said Sunjeev Pandey, a senior director in Microsoft's IT unit. Newer technologies are faster and better, he said, as well as more secure and manageable.

The software maker has been taking bids for the new network and expects to pick a winner by the end of the year, according to Chief Information Officer Ron Markezich. By early next year, the company expects to be doing pilot projects with the new gear.

The wireless deployment comes at the same time Microsoft is shifting much of its telephone infrastructure from traditional systems to those that route calls over the Internet, so-called voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP, technologies.

Microsoft already uses that method to handle calls made between Microsoft offices, a move that saves the company more than $2.5 million a year. All new offices are being set up with phones that use IP exclusively, and the company has also just bought 8,000 such handsets for use on the main campus in Redmond, Wash.

"That's an area (where) we are making a bet," said Markezich. He said it will not only save money but also change the way people at Microsoft work. "It's going to drive a lot of innovation--innovation in how people work, innovation in what we build into our products."

While many companies are turning to VoIP to save money, Microsoft also stands to benefit on the development side, as it works to create software that unifies communication modes such as e-mail, video and voice.

"It's telling us modalities of how people work," said Anoop Gupta, the Microsoft vice president who heads the company's real-time collaboration group.

Microsoft got some of the same benefits from the original wireless network, Pandey said. Because Microsoft workers had to use Windows every day to try and connect to a wireless network, they saw how much improvement was needed. The result, he said, was the improved handling of Wi-Fi that came with Windows XP.

"That's one of the things that I think came directly from the pain that people felt every day," Pandey said.

Pandey said Microsoft is seeking gear that will support all of the current flavors of Wi-Fi: 802.11b, 802.11g and 802.11a. A faster and wider-range standard, 802.11n, is also in the works, and some companies have "pre-n" gear now that is designed to offer many of the same benefits ahead of the formal standard.

"We have an eye toward 'n'," Pandey said. "We definitely want to make sure that what we put in accommodates 'n'."

In the future, Microsoft may build new offices that have only wireless networks.

"Today there are not," Pandey said. "Wireless today is primarily an adjunct to the wired network."

Analysts say that is changing at many large companies, although security concerns linger.

A recent survey by In-Stat/MDR said companies that have wireless networks plan to expand their use, offering them to more employees in more places. However, among those not planning to add or build wireless networks, security concerns were the top issue. Improving security "should be a top concern" for gear makers, said In-Stat/MDR analyst Sam Lucero.

Although Microsoft's old network was secure, it was somewhat inflexible. There was no means for visitors to get net access, because allowing someone onto the wireless network put them behind Microsoft's firewall. In order to allow visitor access for some areas, Microsoft had to put in an entirely separate set of access points.

The new network will allow multiple virtual networks using the same infrastructure. That not only means Microsoft can offer guest access, it also means the company can have more than one corporate network. For example, Microsoft can allow the mobility group to test additional features without having to enable them for everyone.

Pandey said keeping Microsoft's own technology at the cutting edge is critical for the product teams. "We live it, we breathe it, we feel the pain, and then we innovate," Pandey said.