Past and future converge in wireless

Past and future converge in wireless

The 1983 film WarGames tells the story of a hacker who breaks into a military computer system and, thinking it is a simulation, brings the world to the brink of World War III. The film is often remembered as the inspiration for the term "War Dialling", which describes the hacker's procedure of dialling random phone numbers in his search for insecure data systems. More recently, the term "War Driving" has been adopted to describe using mobile computer systems in motor vehicles to hunt for insecure wireless networks. The publicity surrounding this sort of threat encouraged many IT professionals in the early days of wireless to echo the sentiments above, deciding that the best strategy is to opt out altogether.

Although there is no dispute that security has been a major impediment to the uptake of wireless, especially in large organisations, its impact may have been overestimated. As prices drop and demand for wireless grows, issues of manageability, speed and coverage are often raised as the major problems affecting most businesses. WLAN implementation expenses are approaching their wired equivalents, and the cost of ownership is also drawing growing numbers of enterprise customers into the wireless space.

Security measures

Those organisations that had latched onto the established idea that wireless is an expensive and difficult to manage security hazard are finally accepting that the technology has matured. As an increasing number of progressive laptop-enabled businesses implement enterprise-wide wireless solutions, there are more real world examples to demonstrate that a WLAN can be managed in a secure and reliable environment.

Managing director of Netgear Asia/Pacific, Ian McLean said: "The security measures that are currently available do provide lockdown security using wireless, and the opportunity now is for larger businesses to increase their productivity, given that most of them are using laptops and need access to data at different places, besides just their desk."

Many businesses are already embracing these opportunities as the growth of wireless in the SMB space indicates. This growth can also be linked to the increasing availability of "intelligent" auto-configuring wireless devices. Although larger organisations will still benefit from a site survey and strategic installation, intelligent wireless devices are helping to ease the load on both human and network resources when it comes to installation, management and security.

Auto-sensing and auto-configuring access points also provide automated WLAN coverage and load balancing, taking a lot of the speculation out of the installation process. Some devices also include a form of "stealth mode" operation to locate the furthest client on the network and restrict transmission to that distance. This assures WLAN coverage is limited to the perimeter of the network, reducing its exposure to war driving and other threats ensuing from beaming network traffic into the car park, street and beyond.

As well as offering improved security, automation creates opportunities for increasing productivity.

General manager for Nortel Enterprise Networks Australia, Nick Avakian, said: "While people spend a high proportion of their time trying to locate others, leaving messages and waiting for responses, convergent technologies can use wireless networking to identify who is online, on which device, and thus reducing unnecessary wait time."

The right hardware and software combination will allow businesses to track the availability of their users at any point in time, and select the most appropriate method of communication - be it instant messaging, mobile phone or email.

Consumer level

Next generation dual-channel wireless devices are also providing dedicated bandwidth for telephony and multimedia content. This is providing the quality of service required by AV and conferencing applications in an affordable and integrated package. The move away from dedicated video conferencing booths and into webcam-based instant messaging is happening now, and it is being driven by both price and technology.

Enterprise director of 3Com Australia, David Richardson, said: "Convergence is seeing people look for connectivity anywhere, anytime. Small business owners on the run want wireless access in cafes, airports and hotels, which often double as makeshift offices. They aren't technological geniuses, however, and don't have a full-time IT resource to call on, so these products need to be easy to use and simple to install. This benefits the reseller as it keeps product education needs low for volume product."

This reasoning is also applicable at the consumer level, which is experiencing a massive growth in wireless. Fuelled by the surge in consumer level broadband, products like wireless routers and modems are making the home WLAN an affordable and sensible alternative to wired networking.

Unhampered by the issues relating to security and privacy that have slowed corporate and business uptake of wireless in the past, consumer WLAN products are very competitively priced and require almost zero configuration.

Furthermore, convergent technologies are creating additional opportunities within the home user market. For instance, the popularity of high-end mobile phones and PDAs has created strong demand for products that use wireless connectivity, both 802.11 and Bluetooth. Wireless communications technology is already a very competitive space, and it will continue to be a growth area within the channel as customers move away from DECT and cordless phone systems towards combined voice and data networks.

Meanwhile, new opportunities are also opening up in the area of home theatre. This overlap of wireless networking into the home entertainment space taps a large market of users already using their PCs for listening to music, watching movies and tuning in to digital TV.

While addressing a distinct need in the market, convergent technology also creates a motivation for both IT and home entertainment providers to develop an understanding of each others' technology. This is an opportunity that will widen as products like Windows XP Media Centre Edition hit the mainstream in coming months.

As wireless technology starts to bridge the gap between computer networks, communications systems and multimedia devices, it creates an environment where resellers are exposed to technologies that are not traditionally part of their skill set. Gaining knowledge of these other markets will no doubt benefit resellers offering convergent solutions. This is, of course, relevant to all aspects of the market - from home users through to small business, enterprise and the public sectors.

Prevalent mistrust

The ability to clarify the real issues that affect current technology and to detach perceived problems from genuine issues presents an ongoing challenge. While developments such as the 802.11i ratification do solidify the security claims vendors have been making for some time, there is still the need to contextualise this within a broader understanding that wireless technology has reached maturity.

Organisations that still harbour concerns about security can be further deterred by convergent technologies. If wireless networking is considered to be a risk, then exposing networks with multimedia and communications equipment only worsens the problem. So security and convergence must be addressed in tandem, and as organisations start tackling issues of productivity, these will be the focal points.

The prevalent mistrust of wireless in many organisations is exacerbated by fears that it will create a strain on human and network resources, rather than provide the productivity boost that vendors and dealers have been promoting.

National Channel Manager for Alcatel, Vaughan Webster, explained how convergent technologies could play a critical role in ousting this misconception.

"Convergence is vital when companies are looking to boost productivity," he said. "In order to make employees truly effective wherever they are, the organisation needs access to integrated voice and data solutions."

This productivity gain is experienced by both users and administrators. On the one hand the adoption of wireless across a broad range of devices is creating smarter networks, and on the other hand it is streamlining the organisation of those networks. In the home, a WLAN is predominantly used for sharing broadband connections, but the move towards wireless audio and video streaming will increase the demand in this space over the next year or so. In small businesses the low cost of wireless, combined with auto-configuring access points and routers, will continue to be the main attraction of this technology.

Larger businesses and progressive enterprise customers will instead be drawn towards the opportunities that convergence brings in communications systems, and this will be two-fold. First it will provide productivity gains by minimising the amount of time wasted in communicating with others, and second it will reduce the overall cost of telephony and multimedia applications. This is because voice, data and video streams will be able to co-exist in the same network infrastructure.

For the channel, the end result is a welcomed move away from customer support, freeing up resources for capitalising on these opportunities. If the current excitement is anything to go by, then the perception of wireless will move towards the imagery of films such as The Matrix, finally dispensing with the legacy of WarGames.

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