The Wily World of Wireless Networking

The Wily World of Wireless Networking

It is obvious that the benefits associated with fostering a relationship with wireless technology mean productivity gains, lower costs, portability and mobility. But the sticky issues of speed, interoperability, interference, security and manageability are still to be resolved.

So while the wireless market is gathering momentum, some users are not overly comfortable with the concept.

It doesn't help that the pulse of the wireless market is mixed, according to analysts.

What is certain, however, are key business drivers. For starters, Intel's launch of Centrino technology in the Pentium Mobile chipset, which builds in Wi-Fi capability, is fuelling the market. This means the wireless client component has effectively been subsumed into the cost of a laptop. As such, the cost of deploying WiFi as opposed to a wired network has fallen dramatically during the past year.

But adoption - up until the past 12 months - has been slow to take hold in Australia compared to the rate in the US.

This was in part caused by Australia being a smaller market with higher prices, said Rob Crutchley, Computer Associate's principal consultant infrastructure management for the uptake of wireless (Wi-Fi) technology in Australia.

"The value proposition hasn't been as clear for end-users," he said.

But some are getting it. Crutchley said Wi-Fi equipment prices had fallen dramatically in the past 6-12 months - and he expected more action in the next year.

So how big is the Australian wireless LAN market? According to IDC, it is set to double this year, growing 90 per cent from $43 million in 2003.

Indeed, there are many pieces of the puzzle that are slowly starting to wedge into different segments of the market. WLAN technologies - including access points, wireless/broadband routers, bridges, wireless NICs and wireless switches - were popular in the Australian SMB space, but not so much in the enterprise arena - until now, according to IDC.

"The WLAN market is finally reaching a maturation point and enterprises will increasingly adopt it to complement to their network infrastructure strategy," IDC said.

The SMB space and SOHO market were early adopters.

"The majority of WLAN users in Australia at present are SMEs and SOHOs who typically don't have skilled IT staff on board to implement and maintain a wireless network," CA's Crutchley said. "The opportunity for the channel then is to provide initial implementation and continued service with facilities management."

Partners can add Wi-Fi cards to desktops, set up management tools, monitor the network, perform security tests to ensure WEP key rotation is running smoothly and that MAC address filtering is optimised.

For resellers, the opportunities include peddling hardware and software as well as the services, he said.

"The biggest issue with SMEs is they're not well informed or well advised when it comes to safely deploying wireless technology," he said. "This represents a good opportunity for the channel."

VARs help cut the cords

As wireless networking in business and government picks up steam, resellers can help organisations secure and manage WLANs from a network configuration and performance standpoint.

When considering a wireless implementation, resellers need to consider matters of speed, interoperability and interference.

As such, partners can perform site surveys to ensure the signals are strong enough, as well as determine the number of access points and appropriate site location, Cisco consulting systems engineer, Adam Radford, said.

"The next step is to understand what security is used, and the options available, and then do a trial run, testing authentication as well," he said. "The management piece then comes into the picture to test the overall visibility."

CA's Crutchley said rolling out a wireless network was becoming less costly than a wired environment - a Wi-Fi card costs about $60 - and often there was less disruption to the organisation.

Indeed, while there's heaps to consider, many organisations are taking a piecemeal approach to security and management of wireless LANs, according to research from Gartner. Through 2006, 70 per cent of successful WLAN attacks will be because of misconfiguration of access points (AP) and client software, Gartner said.

According to IDC, the main issues slowing enterprise adoption include security, lack of scalability and centralised management.

But Crutchley said a Wi-Fi network could be secured with a little bit of know-how.

"While a lot of noise has been made about the inherent weakness of Wi-Fi security schemes such as Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP), in reality, while is it possible to break it, it requires a lot of time and even more data," he said.

Regular WEP key rotation (the swapping of WEP security keys) and the use of MAC address (unique machine identifier) filtering could go a long way toward fending off potential intruders, he said. The problem was more persistent when an organisation had more than 80 clients.

"Because WEP keys need to be kept in sync between the access point and the clients, the manual maintenance of key synchronisation for large networks becomes so unwieldy that the rotations become less frequent," Crutchley said.

There is technology on the market that helps automate key rotation and helps ward off the intruders.

Other management issues relate to wireless networks for resellers to consider when hooking up large organisations include rogue access points (unauthorised access points set up by employees unknown to the IT department), knowing who is connected to what access point, network load balancing, and event notification.

CA's latest tool helps manage the quality and performance of WLANs by automatically allocating channels and balancing the number of connections at each access point and by event management.

Cisco's Radford agreed the industry has turned a corner now that these and other tools were available to help address the issues of security, interoperability and manageability.

Helping fuel the market is the WPA standardisation, which has been out for about a year and means the industry can have interoperability between multiple vendors, and maintain a certain level of security.

WPA version 2 would be released soon, Radford said. The main difference was the added encryption algorithm.

In a bid to make inroads in the wireless market, Cisco has released a wireless LAN solution engine that looks for unprotected access points.

"With this tool, the job of the wireless sniffers will eventually go away," Radford said.

On the manageability front, the tool alerts and reports back to the administrator as to unknown access points.

"Networks are becoming smarter thanks to these types of tools," he said.

The overall goal was to wedge security into the infrastructure itself,Radford said. Cisco was ready to launch a raft of new routers with embedded security features.

"Given the number of access points, how do you manage and dynamically monitor them, and ensure extra ones aren't being attached," he said.

Resellers could capitalise on the improved tools (and ongoing standardisation) and pitch the benefits to the enterprise and SMB space, he said.

802.11g was the most popular standard at the moment, but there was also growing interest in a and b.

Express Data product manager, David Peach, said the SMB space was a hot market, but cautioned that many resellers were forced to become wireless experts overnight. As such, the company was on a push to educate SMB VARs about the technology and its pitfalls and benefits.

The common things to consider, he said, included deciphering information about a clients needs, the SSID identifier, setting up encryption so data is more secure, and the connector products including adapter cards, access ports and various products.

"Given the complexity, resellers need to draw closer to vendors and get help," Peach said.

The company is working with Cisco to help facilitate the training process.

Resellers needed to get up to speed because the WLAN was becoming an integrated part of the overall network structure, he said.

"In the past, the WLAN was seen just as an addition to the main network," Peach said.

So what is fuelling the momentum? With wireless security features such as IEEE 802.1x user-based authentication, WPA support and support for the 802.11i (AES) security standard, offering the best encryption and wireless security currently available, the technology was set to make a mark, Peach said.

But CEO of Integrity Data Systems, Ross Chiswell, said security was just one piece of the puzzle.

He said partners also need to be concerned about waning margins due to intense competition and the dumbing down of supply channels to reduce costs.

And while he agreed there was enormous opportunity in the channel for WLANs and wireless infrastructure, he said 2004 was a danger year for wireless resellers.

"The market is segmenting. At one end there are volume distributors who don't help the channel sell, they just put out a catalogue," Chiswell said. "These distributors are culling their technical resources to keep their own margins up. At the other end of the scale, backyard niche players just import wireless kits and put them on a price list without the technical resources to help install or maintain it."

As such, resellers need to seek out distributor partners that can technically support them.

"This allows resellers to compete on more than price, thereby maintaining their margins," he said.

So once the education and technical training is sorted, where are the opportunities?

Chiswell said the indoor and outdoor markets were both growth areas.

Resellers eyeing the indoor market first needed to assess the business outcome, decipher the applications used - uncover which ones were the nastiest - and then determine the primary users.

"Design the coverage from a bandwidth point of view," he said.

"How do I make sure the right people are getting access to bandwidth?"

Despite the growth opportunity, resellers sometimes had a tough battle.

"In the indoor space, many companies will tell you, 'our wireless LAN policy is not to have one'," he said.

Moving outdoors, resellers also needed to consider bandwidth as well as what the pipes would carry and how far, Chiswell said.

The need for speed

Cranking up the speed factor, some vendors are working on boosting wireless LAN throughput from about 20Mbps today to at least 100Mbps.

Most gear - categorised under the 802.11g - is 54Mbps, Cisco's Radford said.

"It's very early days, but many vendors are looking at pumping it up to the 240 to 600-range."

Peach said while the other vendors touting 100Mbps had a place in the market, the technology suffered from interoperability issues (due in part to a finite number of channels) and was better suited to the retail/home environment and not enterprise.

D-Link and Netgear are examples of vendors pumping out the gear.

D-Link A/NZ wireless product manager, Garen Casey, said the SuperG router - which offered speeds of 104Mbps - used 11 channels within 802.11g.

Casey said the SuperG router was ideal for the enterprise and the company would continue to strive for even higher throughput. In addition to the enterprise space, he said there was a huge uptake in the home environment - another area where resellers could provide the total solution and offer installation, consulting and support.

Beyond the trend towards mightier speed, Radford said the push towards collaboration between organisations and guest wireless access (where users can be anywhere on the floor) was also cropping up.

Meta Group predicts the technology to move from 30 per cent uptake in enterprises in 2004 to 60 per cent by 2006.

Indeed, the problem facing IT managers is the need to restrict wireless access to physical locations, CA's Crutchley said. For example, with CA's latest tool, the IT manager could now see where the physical limits of the wireless enterprise were and limit access to the network within defined boundaries by mapping-out a physical area on a floor plan that would become the network boundary.

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