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Cutting the cord

Cutting the cord

The idea of wireless networking is not new. In 1971, engineering students at the University of Hawaii tested Alohnet — the world’s first wireless LAN. While the technology has always rated highly on the cool scale, problems with its practical implementation saw more than two decades go by before the 802.11 standards brought wireless LANs onto company and home-user shopping lists.

Thus far 802.11b and its corporate counterpart 802.11a have gained some traction in home LANs as well as small to medium enterprise.

Offering 54Mbps, albeit over a limited physical space, the 802.11a standard was the first to gain traction in the corporate environment, and is expected to continue to do well as hardware costs come down.

Toshiba’s pre-sales technical specialist, Keith Rothsay, said 802.11a was a stayer, despite the advent of newer more flexible standards, because it had yet to be topped on speed. “The real advantage of 802.11a, now that the cost factor has been addressed, is that it is still the fastest transmission standard,” Rothsay said.

“In some cases, for security reasons, the fact the range is not as great is a benefit, because it is possible to restrain the signal within site boundaries. With the 802.11a standard the channels available do not overlap each other, meaning the design of a large multi-access point environment is more flexible, negating the need for specialist frequency sight surveyors often necessary with, 802.11b.”

By comparison, the 802.11b standard works at a lower frequency, and offers top speeds of 11Mbps across a wider range than 802.11a.

Despite dragging its feet on data transfer speeds, 802.11b provides an affordable first step in to the world of wireless LANs for companies and home users alike. Complete with a trendy marketing name, Wi-Fi, 802.11b has been the most successful standard thus far with networking vendors such as Cisco using it to launch flagship wireless products. Nonetheless, national ISP account manager for Netgear, Ryan Parker, said Wi-Fi’s sluggish pace was never going to satisfy the needs of the corporate LAN, and might even become passe in the home environment.

“People quickly realised that the 802.11b technology wasn’t the greatest for a business to move well because the performance was low,” Parker said. “There are two types of customers out there setting up their home network: there are those that are looking for a low level entry into the wireless market, then there’s those people that understand the technology a bit more and want wireless to be a bit closer to the cutting edge. They can understand the performance and are happy to pay around $450 to have 54Mbps wireless running round their home.”

Despite the clear benefits of wireless networking for business, corporate customers remain skeptical; many believe that neither 802.11a or 802.11b provided a satisfactory approach to security.

Asia-Pacific marketing director for McAfee security arm NAI, Allan Bell, said that while concerns regarding security were valid and relevant, they had not significantly held back wireless sales thus far. “There are two security concerns home and business users face: the first is securing the base station,” Bell said. “A low bandwidth user with a $0.15 per excess megabyte broadband plan could face a bill of $1200 when a neighbour downloads 10 800Mb movies over the high-jacked wireless connection.

The second area of concern is that a hacker may be eavesdropping on your wireless traffic looking for passwords and other confidential information.”

Bell described the Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP) common to 802.11a and 802.11b solutions as fundamentally flawed, and suggested that security-conscious businesses would still opt for VPNs to connect remote workers.

“A VPN provides a much harder to break encryption that will ensure hackers can’t sniff passwords and other sensitive information,” Bell said.

Broadly speaking, the idea behind WEP was to provide the same sort of security to a wireless network as that provided to a wired solution.

However, traditional LANs are subject to physical limitations, whereas poorly adjusted 802.11 LANs can inadvertently transmit data outside the office space, and to the street below.

The wind of change may just have arrived in the form of the 802.11g standard — currently creeping onto the Australian market. Offering to bridge the gap between 802.11a and 802.11b, the recently ratified 802.11g also uses Wireless Protected Access (WPA), a stronger security package than WEP. “802.11g was introduced to deal with the security issues of 802.11a and 802.11b,” Bell said. “It uses WAP instead of WEP.

802.11g supports 54Mbps in the 2.4GHz spectrum and can coexist with 802.11b. So it has the range advantage of 802.11b and the speed advantage of 802.11a.” As such, the 802.11g standard appears to provide a solution secure and speedy enough to spark some interest from lucrative corporate customers. However, not everybody saw 802.11g as a wireless panacea, senior analyst for research organisation Meta Group, Bjarne Munch, said.

While 802.11g offered backward compatibility and better security, it might not entirely meet with corporate requirements, he said.

“802.11g is an attractive proposition that looks good on paper,” Munch said. “The thing with 802.11g is that you only have three channels available per access point — so that where you have a higher density of users 802.11a will still offer you more than 802.11g can.”

Munch also pointed out that even 802.11a, when subjected to an average corporate environment, tended to operate at speeds closer to 20Mbps, rather than the 54Mbps it was theoretically capable of providing. He said the corporate market might be more interested in waiting out the emergence of the 802.11h standard currently under development. Unlike existing wireless standards, 802.11h promises centralised frequency and power control, so that wireless connectivity assets can be allocated on a ‘needs’ basis. At this stage, however, Munch said attempts to offer improved security with the 802.11g standard, and other aspects of wireless networking, were in danger of falling into a proprietary quagmire as vendors rushed to fill holes left by yet-to-be-ratified standards. “If a corporation wants to it can implement a secure wireless network today,” Munch said. “But you can’t do it without proprietary solutions.”

Watch this space

While there are implementation problems regarding all the wireless standards currently available, the market is constantly changing and there are few standards on the horizon which promise affordable, non-proprietary solutions to the problems currently faced. The 802.11i standard, currently under development, is set to offer a non-proprietary solution to the ongoing problem of security on wireless networks. Tagged for release later this year, 802.11e is currently being processed by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). Using Time Division Multiple Access (TDMA), this new specification promises to offer quality of service (QoS) features, allowing for data, as well as delay-sensitive applications like voice, and video transmissions.

Even without these new standards, industry observers tend to agree there is enough growth in the home and small business market to keep 802.11 wireless sales buoyant, and the growing tendency for vendors to bundle wireless features as standard should serve to further stimulate the market. Moreover, growing rates of broadband home connectivity are seen by many as an important factor in the growth of home networking, leaving still more opportunities for growth in the wireless LAN market. “Intel providing wireless as an integral part of its Centrino chip set has reduced the barriers for entry for those who are using wireless at home,” Cisco’s ACT branch manager for regional sales, Tim Hemingway, said. “Right now we are bundling 802.11b connectivity with IBM laptops, so you can just buy a laptop bundled with an 802.11b or 802.11g access point. You can just take it home and you’re away.”

This is all good news for most resellers, who tend to loose out on the corporate market but make their bread and butter from home through to mid-level applications. According to Netgear’s Parker, the reseller channel is fundamental to the company’s rollouts of wireless networks, and is currently outselling the mass merchants four to one.

“Wireless growth is really being captured by the channel in the home office space as well as in companies of up to 10 users; your general resellers tend to thrive in that space,” he said. “Traditionally when people set up their own wireless network they get to the stage when it says set up security and they leave it at that, where the reseller can set up the security for the wireless network and make sure that that is solid.

Also the reseller has the experience to make sure that the access points are in the right place, whereas the user is more likely to buy a wireless network and set it up in the office when the place they really want it is under the tree in the backyard.” So while the risk-adverse corporate sector plays the waiting game, resellers are best advised to keep abreast of the 802.11a, 802.11b and 802.11g technologies, and value add where possible when it comes to the implementations of such networks. There will always be a market for cutting edge products — and keeping an eye on emerging standards will give some in the industry the all important first-mover status when the IEEE finally approves a functional secure standard capable of corporate speeds.

Wireless cheat-sheet

A quick guide to some of the 802.11 family of wireless specifications.

Operating at frequencies between 5GHz and 6GHz, this specification is used in access hubs for wireless ATM systems and offers data transfer at up to 54Mbps over a limited range.

802.11b

Also known as Wi-Fi, this technology operates at 2.4GHz and provides data speeds up to 11Mbps. By far the most prevalent standard due to its affordability and range.

802.11e

Aimed at providing quality of service (QoS) features, including the prioritization of data, voice, and video transmissions, the 802.11e is a proposed enhancement to the 802.11 wireless LAN (WLAN) which is due to be ratified later this year.

802.11g

Another resident of the 2.4GHz range, the 802.11g was approved in mid-2003, is backwards compatible with 802.11a and 802.11b, and provides speeds of 54Mbps, over short distances.

802.11h

This standard promises centralised frequency and power control at 5GHz. 802.11h should offer transmission power control (TPC) and dynamic frequency selection (DFS) limiting the transmitted power to the minimum needed to reach the furthest user, and minimising interference with the signal.

802.11i

This standard promises to plug the holes left by Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP) through a security algorithm called Temporal Key Integrity Protocol (TKIP). However, drafts specs of this standard have been circulating for two years and the IEEE has yet to fully ratify it as a solution.


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