Aruba Networks has launched programmes to find new uses for Wi-Fi networks, explore future possibilities for wireless networks and study mobile computing's impact on the environment.

The Wi-Fi network vendor is initiating all three projects under the banner of Aruba Labs, a project that has been under development for about two years but is now going public and adding a broad programme called the Green Island Project, said Aruba spokesman Michael Tennefoss.

Aruba Labs helps third-party software providers develop new applications for wireless LANs and will assist some academics and even grade-school students in studying the emerging wireless world, according to Aruba.

Wireless LANs are now taken for granted in homes, public hotspots and some parts of enterprises, but they are relatively new as a mainstream technology. Standardised WLANs have only been on the market about 10 years and proliferated beginning earlier in this decade. Aruba said it wants to help researchers explore "blue-sky" problems on the frontiers of wireless networking and study the potential impact of an all-wireless workplace.

Part of the benefit of Wi-Fi offices is power savings, according to Aruba. For example, Aruba claims using wireless to connect client systems allows for smaller switches with fewer ports, cutting power consumption and the need for copper wiring. In addition, WLANs can open up more possibilities for designing buildings because there's no need to allow for wiring to each employee's computer.

Aruba Labs encompasses both research and development, in three main programmes.

Under its Developers Programme, Aruba Labs writes and distributes open-source SDKs and APIs for software developers and Aruba customers to quickly develop prototypes of new wireless applications. These might include uses such as Wi-Fi digital signs that could warn of hazardous weather or missing children, or security and environmental sensors around a building, said Aruba.

With its Advanced Directed Research Program, Aruba engineers work directly with partners to study wireless networking issues through sponsored research, joint development work and grant-funded programmes. This "blue-sky" research includes studies such as a two-year project between Aruba and Dartmouth University that studied the vulnerabilities of large WLAN voice networks, Tennefoss said.

The newly launched Green Island Project will sponsor research on the economic, environmental and social effects of wireless computing. Aruba said it wants to quantify these effects, such as the impact of easier telecommuting made possible by wireless.

The Green Island Project is open, by invitation only, to kindergarten-through-12th-grade schools and colleges and universities that are Aruba customers. Other institutions and companies will be admitted, on a case-by-case basis.

The idea is to make the project a community of researchers that shares findings rather than having some members simply commercialize them, Tennefoss said. There will be conferences, webcasts and an online forum for sharing, he said.

Aruba isn't alone in advocating an all-wireless workplace. Motorola, for one, has argued that wireless can be less expensive than wired LANs over the long haul because of factors such as lower maintenance costs for wireless than for copper wiring. Some industry analysts are skeptical about these claims, but there are settings, such as historic buildings and brick or stone structures, where Wi-Fi has made it much easier to connect workers' PCs.

Enterprises are interested in saving money by cutting power consumption, but reducing switch size or port count by going all wireless wouldn't necessarily save power, according to Michael Kanellos, a senior analyst with Green Tech Media. Wi-Fi access points still have to transmit and receive packets from client computers, and through hardware integration, conventional wired Ethernet switches are getting smaller and more efficient, too, he said. Claims such as Aruba's would have to be proved, Kanellos said.

Aruba already has evidence that more wireless networking leads to lower power demands, but one purpose of Aruba Labs will be to study such questions further, according to Aruba's Tennefoss.