Wireless wonders and woes

Wireless wonders and woes

Enterprises are becoming enamoured with the convenience of wireless data, but are they allowing their love of the new technologies to blind them to the dangers? David Hellaby looks at the pros and cons of wireless in the workplace.

As demand for wireless data grows, enterprises are faced with a decision as to just how wireless they want to be. There are three emerging wireless technologies, each with its own uses: wireless wide area network (WWAN), wireless local area network (WLAN) and wireless personal area network (WPAN). The three can be used together or as standalone services. WWAN relates to data over mobile phone networks, in particular GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) and the upcoming 3G network. GPRS-capable networks have been available in Australia for more than a year and are capable of delivering data at around 40 kilobits per second (Kbps), or the equivalent of a desktop dialup modem. While it is far from lightning speed, it is still much faster than the previous 9.6Kbps and has opened up new opportunities for businesses with mobile staff who need to be able to send or receive data in the field.

It is here that Bluetooth is also making its initial mark. Bluetooth is a WPAN that has an effective range of 10 metres and is capable of carrying both voice and data between devices. Unlike infrared, it does not require line of sight, although it has had some early teething problems, mainly caused by different vendor standards.

There is a growing market for specialist wireless software for field operators, and several vendors have recently entered the Australian market. One such vendor is Mobipro, which last month signed up three new VARs for the local market. Spectrum Interactive Solutions, Teamlink/Timesystem Australia, and Task & Time Management will be focusing on the mobile channel, bundling Mobipro's mobile and wireless solutions such as TimeWAP with its existing data services. Mobile telephone software that could be used with GPRS or WAP-enabled phones was an opportunity too good to be missed, according to Spectrum’s Kevin Porter. Mobipro executive director Gui Planes says his company plans to enlist a total of six new VARs by the end of 2002.

The value of combining wireless technologies has already been proven by companies such as Fuji Xerox, with 420 of its customer service field staff using a combination of Bluetooth and GPRS for customer call-outs. The company has developed its own technology, FIRES, to link field staff with its call centre.

Depending on who you listen to, wireless LAN is either the best or the worst thing since sliced bread. The horror stories about the insecurities of wireless LAN have become folklore and would normally be enough to put any sensible business off even contemplating installing something that has been described as the equivalent of leaving your network hub in the middle of Circular Quay and inviting everyone to connect to it.

Despite that, wireless LAN is booming and there appears to be little likelihood that its growth will abate any time soon. It is being propelled by no less than Intel, along with a growing number of OEMs that are delivering 802.11-standard wireless, either pre-installed or as an option, in an ever-increasing number of mobile and handheld PCs. While the security issues on the surface should be enough to kill the technology, the convenience and freedom afforded by a wireless network is nevertheless compelling.

Wireless networks can do everything a standard wired network does, including handling most of the same software, with the major advantage that users do not have to be physically connected to the network and can move about a building or campus without losing their connection.

The good news for wireless is that, despite the horror stories, wireless LAN can be made secure. The bad news is that such security often removes any of the initial cost advantage that a wireless network has over a standard Ethernet LAN. It takes little to set up a wireless LAN: just a few $500 access points, a router (if you want to link to your wired LAN), and a $200 wireless card for each user. But it takes a lot to make it secure, including virtual private networks, firewalls, and intrusion-detection technology -- and if you don’t do it right it will still be vulnerable.

The original 802.11 standard emerged in the late 1990s and was capable of transmitting data at a rate of 1Mbps over a range of up to 50 metres. It used WEP (Wireless Equivalent Privacy) to encrypt the data and the 128-bit encryption was originally considered to be very secure. However, a team of Berkeley researchers discovered that the key to the encryption could be accessed. Even then, it was not considered to be a serious problem because the researchers estimated it would take a hacker a week to get the key. However, subsequent studies have shown that it can be done in minutes and there are now tools readily available on the Internet that enable almost any would-be hacker to do so.

Since the original standard for 802.11 was ratified by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) in 1997, two new standards have emerged: 802.11b, which operated on the unlicensed 24GHz band and transmits data at up to 11Mbps; and 802.11a, which operates on the 5GHz band and has a data rate of between 6Mbps and 54Mbps. Both have an effective range of between 35 and 100 metres, depending on their location. Despite their advances, both still rely on WEP for their in-built security.

To date, 802.11b, which was first to market, has been the most popular and shown good growth despite early problems with availability. However, 802.11a, which was released earlier this year, is expected to grow in the coming months helped by the release of dual-standard products last month.

Netgear Asia-Pacific managing director Ian McLean says product availability has come a long way in recent months and is set to go even further and gain more acceptance in the coming year. “Over the past 18 months, the price of wireless LAN equipment has come down significantly, and the ease of use of wireless devices has grown to the point that many are as simple to use as their hardwired counterparts.

“Security concerns aside, this has spurred impressive adoption of the new technology. Companies, not least small and medium enterprises, can benefit from the productivity gains of an always-on, always-connected mobile workforce. Laptop users can gain wireless access to company network resources, e-mail and the Internet from any location in the office. And IT managers are able to extend the existing Ethernet network to remote locations in the building where Ethernet cabling would be impossible or too expensive to install.”

McLean is enthusiastic about the future of wireless in the enterprise space. “Products today offer capabilities never before available in wireless networking and will be in high demand as the increasing number of wireless users with demand for higher performance grows,” he says. “There are also a number of emerging standards, such as the 802.11g, e, i, h and f, with security as a high priority. When it comes to 802.11i, for example, the task group working on developing it is addressing all alternatives. New software features will include authentication via a wireless Radius server, RSN protocol, and AES [Advanced Encryption Standard], as opposed to the WEP protocol currently being used by 802.11a and 802.11b.” In the meantime, Toshiba wireless product manager Justin White believes installing a VPN over a wireless LAN is an essential extra layer of security. “Toshiba's general line is that wireless networks are secure, it is simply that people who do not understand the technology are not taking the kind of steps to make them secure as they would with a wired network.”

Perhaps the final word should go to Jason Conyard, Symantec’s director of wireless product management, who says the successful deployment of wireless will only be possible with clear and achievable objectives.

“This includes defining a strategy to leverage wireless solutions to meet specific and measurable ends. It is unlikely that wireless will serve as an end in its own right, but it will most likely be an addition to an existing function or process with the benefit of mobility,” Conyard says.

“Bearing in mind that not all the promises of wireless technology are true today, it is wise to be conservative with expectations of things such as speed and reliability of connection, viewable area on a PDA, range or a wireless LAN connection. Just like the Internet, it is time to think again about the consequences of this enabling technology, but for this next race, security must be addressed out of the gate,” he says.

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