Wireless breaks into enterprise

Wireless breaks into enterprise

Wireless networking is finally taking a foothold in the corporate space. New developments in security and WLAN management are paving the way for large organisations that have previously resisted wireless on the grounds that it is not as secure and manageable as conventional wired networks.

As WLAN installations increase in sophistication and size, a greater understanding of the technology is becoming essential to planning and delivering appropriate solutions. At the same time, the cost effectiveness of enterprise solutions is starting to trickle down into the SMB space, providing an expansion of opportunities in the channel.

The sale of WLAN equipment grew by 90 per cent last year, and is set to double to more than $80 million in 2004. Although new technologies are opening doors for large organisations thinking of deploying wireless networks, the SMB space still tends to be the fastest to adopt any new developments.

Along with consumers, SMB users are generally less disturbed by fallible security and instead prioritise fast, affordable and simple solutions. As a result, basic WLAN products dominate the market and resellers tend to be less aware of large scale WLAN technologies and the issues that emerge in more sophisticated installations. This means that the opportunities for resellers delivering enterprise level wireless solutions are widening.

Managing director of Netgear Asia-Pacific, Ian McLean, confirmed this: “Although SMBs have traditionally driven wireless takeup within Australia, seeing wireless technology as an essential business tool, and a cost effective way to increase office functionality and productivity”, he said.

When it comes to large organisations, hesitation about air link security is often assumed to be the primary concern about wireless. Ironically, the well publicised flaws of WEP security are rarely an issue for corporates, who instead rely upon technologies such as virtual private networks (VPN) and IPSEC to encrypt data. Additionally, those who are looking for air link encryption have the option of using WPA, which is supported by a large percentage of devices on the market. The issue of air link security will no doubt become something of a moot point anyway, as the recently ratified IEEE 802.11i specification takes hold in emerging wireless devices.

There is much more to securing a WLAN than just encryption, however. Other factors such as zone control can be more of a priority with large scale organisations.

Principal consultant in infrastructure management at Computer Associates, Rob Crutchely, said the breakthrough of zone management technology would change the way corporates perceive wireless administration.

Basically, zone management lets IT administrators see their WLAN site on a location-aware map, he said.

“Using this map you can define the physical areas where the organisation’s wireless network can be used and where it can’t,” Crutchely said.

Pinpointing anomolies

In addition to access zone control and standard triangulation techniques, the RF diagnostic process of location tracking also helps to diagnose and pinpoint anomalies in the airspace occupied by a WLAN.

This patrolling of the RF band not only helps locate rogue access points and unauthorised WNICs, but also potential sources of interference. This process can be assisted by client management software that identifies all network connections and ascertains their compliance with network and software requirements.

HP’s market development manager for commercial notebooks, Matt Dalton, said “most organisations have a good grip on the infrastructure side of things, but what many lack is centralised client side management for deploying things like software updates and hotfixes”.

Enterprise level software environment management not only allows IT administrators to maintain control over what software is deployed on a network, it can also identify misconfigured and unknown network devices from a central location.

Although this need is inherited from conventional wired networks, it is becoming a greater concern for WLANs as well, with 95 per cent of corporate laptops expected to ship with Wi-Fi by next year, according to Meta Group.

Useful as it is, client side management tools only tackle one side of the administrative problem caused by the proliferation of wireless devices in the enterprise.

The other side incorporates the problem of managing user access rights to services and resources across the network.

SonicWall’s regional sales manager for A/NZ and Oceania, Tim Dickinson, explained: “When it comes down to small to mid-sized businesses wishing to manage their wired and wireless networks centrally there has simply not been an option of this nature for them.”

Addressing this issue, gateway devices can provide IPSEC and VPN security at the core, making even the need for WEP unnecessary as all data is encrypted before it hits the air waves.

At the same time, gateways can deliver sophisticated user and group permissions and priority rules for all network users. Residing in either a local database or retrieved from Radius, LDAP or Active Directory servers, these devices provide integrated management as well as security from a centralised location. Because they are vendor agnostic, they bypass all issues of air link security such as key negotiation and updates, as well as uncertainty over the dependability of such security implementations.

Concern over the potential expense of using gateway devices is perhaps unwarranted and, if compared with the cost of implementing vendor specific solutions, can be surprisingly competitive — especially when the ongoing administrative benefits are factored in.

Business development manager for security at Lan 1, Leo Jusmin, said: “The initial investment in centralised management hardware is quickly offset by the savings in administration time afforded by the solution.”

A more realistic solution

The challenge, he said, was to provide education for resellers with respect to these enterprise-level technologies.

By way of example, a site requiring fifteen access points will have little cost differentiation between a proprietary solution and a gateway machine serving generic access points.

The latter is also a more realistic solution as it can utilise existing wireless infrastructure which is commonly brought into the enterprise without the approval or even knowledge of the IT departments.

Referring to this sort of infiltration of WLAN devices in the hospital sector, Ross Chiswell, CEO of Integrity Data Systems, said that wireless equipment was invading the health system by stealth, with specialist areas using project funding to buy wireless devices to support their data collection in a specific area of activity.

“To date, this has largely gone under the radar of the IT department, which can leave gaping security holes due to no centralised control of how these devices are deployed,” he said.

By offering centralised management tools that will work with existing hardware, resellers can provide cost effective answers to the problems faced by large organisations preparing for the inevitability of wireless.

The enterprise thus requires a different skill set from the channel than historically expected in the SMB space.

“Most enterprises won’t have the experience in-house to plan, implement, secure and manage a large-scale WLAN and will be looking to external advisers to assist,” Crutchely said.

Knowledge building

This means that resellers are going to need to educate themselves on enterprise technologies if they are going to be able to compete in this fast moving market. This includes building an understanding of centralised management tools, both software and hardware, but it also incorporates a knowledge of wireless specifications and how they relate to performance in larger WLAN environments.

Chiswell said a good knowledge of details such as CPU speed, available memory and ROM size would facilitate quality recommendations of wireless technologies from the channel. The CPU speed of an access point, for example, was rarely given the attention it deserved. Likewise, access points that contain minimal RAM might function well in low-demand networks, but more demanding scenarios such as voice applications would require anything up to 32MB. Additionally, the available ROM in an access point determines the device’s flexibility as well as upgrade capabilities. For instance, many current model access points simply don’t have the capacity to be able to deliver support for the recently ratified 802.11i standard.

Other issues often overlooked include the capabilities of the aerial system and the usability of the client software.

For example, it is no use having an access point boasting full IEEE compliance and 108Mbps if the aerial’s capabilities are substandard.

Likewise, if the client software or the device itself makes switching between networks or other configuration tasks impractical, it can render some of its more attractive features useless.

These often overlooked features can mean the difference between a successful wireless solution and a complete disaster.

A/NZ channel director for 3Com, Simon Edwards, said one of the key opportunities for channel partners was to clear up any conflicting information about the technology while providing scalable solutions across the SOHO, SMB and enterprise spaces.

As demand for WLAN technologies increases — particularly within the enterprise space — we would no doubt continue to see a shift from product oriented solutions to service-based relationships emerging within the channel, said Dalton.

“The customer needs to know how wireless technology can be deployed in an intelligent manner,” he said. “We rely on resellers to understand how secure but flexible networks can be managed, and to use this skill set to develop a close relationship with their clients by becoming their trusted advisors.”

Demand for wireless networking in large organisations might be exploding, but resellers need to be on their toes to make the most of this growing market.

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