Footloose and wire free

Footloose and wire free

Whether we like it or not wireless local area networks are here to stay.

Despite security and interoperability concerns, wireless data — and in particular 802.11 in its various forms — has captured the imagination of small business and home users.

Enterprise has been more reluctant to embrace the technology, citing the security issue as the main reason for not adopting the tech­nology, however, some analysts suggest that has just been a convenient excuse and the security issues have been addressed.

With or without enterprise the wireless market is expected to continue to grow solidly.

As PC buyers have turned to notebooks to replace their desktop computers, they have been introduced to wireless thanks somewhat to Intel and the launch earlier this year of its Centrino wireless-centric architecture. Analysts expect that by 2005, 70 per cent of new notebook PCs will be wireless enabled — Intel predicts it will be as high as 90 per cent — and with notebooks expected to dominate the market within three to four years, there seems little that can stop the wireless revolution.

Small-to-medium businesses have driven wireless take up within Australia and now, as issues of security and speed are increasingly addressed, the channel is hopeful the enterprise market will follow.

Gartner/InStat figures predict a 68 per cent growth for the worldwide wireless market this year and that means plenty of prospects for the channel and vendors.

But it is not necessarily going to be easy. Despite its convenience and supposed simplicity, wireless can be a complex technology that demands a holistic approach and that means opportunity for channel operators who are able to offer a complete package including firewalls, antivirus and virtual private networks.

Gartner Group’s research director for mobile and wireless, Robin Simpson, said that while wireless — particularly 802.11b — had been hugely successful in the home and SOHO market very little had been going to enterprise.

“The bottom-line is enterprise did not want to spend any money on IT, but the excuse they used was the lack of wireless security,” he said. “Of course, there are fairly straight forward solutions to wireless security — such as running a VLAN over the top — and they have been known for quite a long time.

“Now the Wireless Alliance has come to the rescue by certifying WPA [wireless protected access] and in Gartner’s opinion that solves all of the wireless security problems well enough for the next three to five years.”

WPA replaces the insecure wireless equivalent privacy (WEP) with three layers of security.

There is still plenty of controversy surrounding 802.11, its security or lack of it, and the various competing standards. While it is generally accepted that there are ways of securing a wireless LAN without WPA, usually through the use of virtual private networks, some claim that the cure can be worse than the problem.

Several vendors offer proprietary solutions, however they often have compatibility issues.

To make matters more difficult there are currently three 802.11 standards available in Australia — the original 802.11b, which operates on the 2.4GHz band and has a maximum data transfer rate of 11Mbps; 802.11a which operates on the 5.2GHz band at up to 54Mbps but is not compatible with 802.11b and has yet to be formally ratified; and 802.11g which operates on the 2.4GHz band at 54Mbps and is backward compatible with both a and b. The latter is also more secure than 802.11b thanks to WPA which has been included in ‘g’ since both WPA and ‘g’ were ratified in the middle of the year.

However, there is no guarantee that ‘g’ devices manufactured before then have WAP included.

On paper 802.11g should be the standard of choice. With Apple already using it and Intel bringing out a new version of Centrino later in the year that adopts 802.11g, its future would seem assured. But that is not necessarily the case because, to confuse the issue even further, there is a fourth standard waiting in the wings. Like 802.11a, the proposed 802.11i operates on 5.2GHz at up to 54Mbps. But, unlike ‘a’, it is backward compatible with all of its predecessors.

“A lot of organisations have put off deploying wireless by saying they are waiting for 802.11i to get finished,” Simpson said. “However, the problem with both 802.11a and ‘i’ is that it is taking forever to get them ratified and we don’t believe either standard will be finally ratified until May or June next year.

He said that now WPA was available there was no need for big business to wait any longer and there was an opportunity for the channel to go back to enterprise and say ‘hey, we have the security problem licked. The solution is WPA and here’s some Wi-Fi certified equipment that has it built in.’

But not everybody is convinced that it is that easy. Adelaide-based Integrity Data CEO, Ross Chiswell, said strong uptake in wireless technologies by the enterprise sector would only occur when resellers managed to successfully balance network security with access flexibility.

He said over-reliance on VPNs to secure wireless networks had created an ‘IT management nightmare’.

“The initial fix from the mainstream vendors of running a VPN for security is really coming back to bite them,” Chiswell said. “Organisations are now finding out that what their vendor told them — to use a VPN concentrator and VPN client software — has created a management issue that is very difficult in the wireless environment.

“As soon as you cross an IP subnet, the VPN tunnel is broken, which means that the productivity gains offered by wireless, in terms of the flexibility, mobility and ease of workgroup computing, is undermined.

“The smarter resellers are the ones who look at this problem and find products that both fix security and maintain mobility. These are winning larger sites because they are able to do the job for their clients.”

Chiswell said that while SOHO demand was focused on the ‘g-spot’ this doesn’t represent great opportunities for resellers.

“It’s low-end connectivity for which margins will continue to shrink,” he said. “At these pricepoints, there’s no ability to add any value, so in my opinion, that end of the market is best served by Web sites. That’s what has happened in the US.”

Chiswell said there was a lot of opportunity brewing in Fortune 500 companies and government departments.

“The best-positioned people are the network integration and systems integration consultants who work with larger clients,” he said. “These are the companies that enterprises turn to for this type of technology.”

One company that is already targeting the enterprise market is Netgear, which expects wireless products to account for 40 per cent of its sales in the year to come.

Managing director, Ian McLean, said Netgear has had success in the wireless market through understanding the technical needs and capabilities of the SMB market, which essentially wants affordable, easy-to-use, high performance networking equipment. Now, the company was applying its expertise to the enterprise market, developing products, support programs and its channel to meet the needs of the different market.

“We have strengthened our channel through the inclusion of a Bid Desk and the development of the Powershift Plus program, through which we hope to recruit a limited number of specialist partners capable of targeting our range of business class products to the corporate market,” McLean said.

The company has been offering 802.11g products since the first half of the year and in June deployed a ‘g’ network at the University of South Australia’s City West campus.

Like Netgear, Belkin has a suite of 802.11g compliant wireless devices and is seeing increasing growth for them in the retail market. Belkin’s channel partners/customers, include Harvey Norman, Ingram Micro, Harris Tech and others who, according to managing director, Michael Bell, are increasingly seeing the value of wireless networking.

Greater Asia IT regional manager Intel Asia Pacific, Jeff Stearns, said wireless LANs were rapidly fulfilling their potential in helping businesses to increase employee productivity and provide better customer service.

He said that although wireless LANs were still not 100 per cent secure solutions such as VPNs, IPSec encryption and EAP (Extensible Authentication Protocol) with IEEE 802.1x can provide a good level of security.

“One of the major security concerns with wireless is that the original WEP security standard was quickly shown to be insecure and an easy target for hackers,” he said.

The new 802.11i protocol used AES (Advanced Encryption Standard) and other enhancements to implement stronger encryption and message integrity checks and many of these enhancements will be able to be done through firmware upgrades, Stearns said.

“802.11i will address the wireless security issue and most manufacturers will implement these standards once it is finalised,” he said. “In addition, they will have to provide interoperability between different vendors brands of wireless LAN products and to ensure that their products comply with the 802.11i standards.”

Stearns said he expected that large corporations and financial institutions that did not have a VPN solution in place might hold back on wireless LAN implementation until the 802.11i security standards were finalised.

While the security debate continues to rage public wireless hotspots are proliferating at an incredible rate. By the end of this year there is expected to be about 1000 public access hotspots around Australia ranging from cafés and conference centres to airport lounges and shopping centres. They are even infiltrating major sporting events such as the recent Indy Motor Racing Carnival on the Gold Coast where several hotspots were set up around the circuit — mainly for the use of corporate box users.

The vast majority of public hotspots use 802.11b, which makes them easy to upgrade to 802.11g because of the backward compatibility, and that may be a telling factor in determining the direction of the market.

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