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Follow Microsoft IT to Mostly Wireless Networking?

Over the next two years, the Microsoft IT department plans to convert more than two-thirds of Microsoft sites to completely wireless networking.

"In the grand scheme of things, we'll be cutting over 90 percent of our end-user network infrastructure," said David Lef, principal network architect at Microsoft IT, in a blog Q&A this month.

Lef is participating in a series of posts about the broader transition of Microsoft's internal network, which supports 220,000 employees and vendors, 886 sites, 2,500 apps and processes, and 1.2 million devices. The whole series is worth a read. You can find the first and second installments here and here.

But the wireless transition is interesting as a partner opportunity. If a company with the scale and high-level demands of Microsoft can trust wireless networking for the bulk of its infrastructure, a lot of smaller companies with less-demanding environments might feel more comfortable about cutting their cables.

For a company like Microsoft, which is always trying to create technology markets, showing the way toward a business goal is always part of the internal motivation for IT projects. That's the case here, as Lef said. "It's driven primarily from the high-level goal of cloud first, mobile first."

But it's been bottom-up, too. Microsoft employees have voted with their network connections that they want the flexibility of wireless. "Traffic and use analysis showed that the wireless network was very quickly becoming our main network infrastructure, from a user's perspective," Lef said, adding, "At many of our information worker sites, wired port utilization is less than 10 percent. If you average it out across all of our user sites, it's closer to 30 percent, but when you do the math, it still ends up being a lot of investment in network infrastructure that simply isn't necessary."

Lef expects a wireless-first, rather than wired-first, network will save money on upgrades, additions to the networking environment, equipment and maintenance.

Plenty of challenges remain. For one thing, Microsoft IT will finish rolling out 802.11ac across the company before removing any wired infrastructure. Some desktop PCs need wireless adapters. There are all the usual device and driver issues. Ensuring adequate bandwidth is a constant concern, especially with bring-your-own-device and the Internet of Things.

Challenges aside, the pilot stage is complete. Some 200 sites, including datacenters and engineering centers, will keep their wires and networking hardware. But for 660 sites worldwide, Microsoft will spend the next two years ensuring wireless readiness and then weaning them off their cables.

Posted by Scott Bekker on August 25, 2016