Wired Ethernet and wireless connections represent the two primary methods for connecting devices to a network in modern computing. Each has distinct features, advantages, and disadvantages.

Network Connections: Wired, Wireless … and Something On the Lighter Side

Steve Maurer, IME
Wired Ethernet and wireless connections represent the two primary methods for connecting devices to a network in modern computing. Each has distinct features, advantages, and disadvantages.

Wired Ethernet connections are typically more stable and faster than wireless connections. They tend to offer higher, consistent speeds and a secure connection because they are harder to intercept. To “steal” data from an ethernet connection, the cable must be tapped into. And in fiber optic cabling, this is nearly impossible to do without a noticeable disruption in the connection, which alerts users to tampering.

Ethernet is less prone to interference from other electronic devices, and therefore it can provide a reliable and high-quality connection that's particularly suited to data-intensive tasks. This can be important when multiple data collection points are used, particularly in Industry 4.0 IIoT applications and similar scenarios.

When important decisions must be made quickly based on retrieved data, network speed is essential. And when machine operation is being monitored, quick data retrieval and analysis can be vital to not just machine and production health, but worker health and safety as well.

However, the downside is the lack of mobility, as the device has to be physically connected to the network via a cable. This can be limiting in a larger space or for devices that are frequently moved. Each device connected to the network via cable is basically “tethered” to its location.

Wall boxes can be strategically located throughout the area in an office space, for example. But keeping the cords that connect the devices to the outlets may result in a rat’s nest of cabling. Trip hazards and lack of reconfiguration are just two of the potential issues.

Additionally, since each device must be connected to it’s own ethernet cable, for the most part, and not “daisy-chained” like telecom cabling, the amount of cable and the amount of labor to install the cabling can be quite expensive. Reconfiguring an area frequently requires downtime, additional labor, and often overtime wages to complete.

That leads to the second option.

Wireless connections, on the other hand, provide a level of convenience and mobility that wired ethernet can't match. This makes it ideal for devices like smartphones, tablets, and laptops which are frequently moved around.

It also simplifies the addition of new devices to the network, as there's no need for extra cabling. However, wireless connections are generally slower than wired ones, and they can be susceptible to interference from other devices.

They are based on radio waves, for example, and can be susceptible to anything that disrupts them, such as metallic barriers, microwave ovens, and walls. The quality and speed of a wireless connection can be affected by the distance from the device to the router.

The connection may still get through, but signal degradation is an issue.

A workaround in most cases is to place APs (access points) in strategic locations to ensure a more consistent data connection. You often see this in hospitals where APs are placed in the various hallways of a ward or floor plan. Factories and processing plants rely heavily on access points for communication.

However, wireless connectivity through radio spectrums may also lead to degraded, slower signals when the networks is close to or exceeds its transmission capacity.

Security is a significant issue for wireless networks primarily due to the nature of their data transmission methods. Unlike wired connections where data travels through physical cables, wireless data is transmitted through the air, making it inherently more accessible and hence susceptible to unauthorized interception.

This means that an intruder within the network's range could potentially capture the data being transmitted, even without a physical connection. Furthermore, if the wireless network isn't properly secured — for instance, if it doesn't use strong encryption or if the network password is weak or easily guessable — it can be relatively easy for malicious parties to gain unauthorized access to the network.

Once inside the network, they could snoop on the data traffic, steal sensitive information, inject malicious code, or carry out other harmful actions. Therefore, strong security measures are crucial for wireless networks to mitigate these risks. But even password protected networks can be hacked into with a little homework. Workers often use weak passwords to connect since the data isn’t “their” data.

And since wireless signals can penetrate walls, the hacker could be hiding in a closet, for instance, and still gain access to office networks. Some wireless networks can even be hacked from the parking lot.

In many scenarios where security is a top priority, wireless connections, even on phones, are often prohibited, which takes you back to putting up with the downsides of wired network connections.

So, how can you  ensure a fast, secure network that still provides mobility and reconfiguration?

A new wireless technology developed by Signify uses light waves to provide wireless, two-way communication. Yes, you heard that right … light waves.

The technology is called “LiFi” and their offering is branded Trulifi. The system modulates light waves to transmit data. For a device to access the data, a USB access key must be plugged into the computer, laptop, or tablet. Without the key, your computer has no data connection.

The USB key receives data and also transmits data from the device back into the network. And it’s all done wirelessly at a significantly greater security level than traditional radio wave based wireless connections.

This all but eliminates the need for expansive wired networks, providing a secure wireless connection without the need for extensive cable installation.

Since light doesn’t penetrate walls, what’s transmitted in the room stays in the room. Many existing lighting fixtures can be retrofitted with the technology for quick, seamless integration.

Here’s another cool concept. Think planes, trains, and automobiles. Since the data is transmitted over light waves, there’s no interference to sensitive communication, navigation, or operational data on the transportation.

No more shutting off your phone before take-off!

I’ve often called LEDs the light wave of the future.

Now, lighting truly does take us even further in to the 21st century … and beyond.

Photo courtesy of Signify
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