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Remote WLAN management hits the runway

The hottest trend in fashion? Remote WLAN management. A San Diego design firm learned how it could manage its New York wireless network without an on-site admin.

When fashion design firm Nicholas K. launched last year, company executives expected it to grow quickly. And that it did. After only a year in business, it now distributes to 50 retailers and has two offices on opposite coasts.

Since it has already outgrown several office spaces, the need for networking flexibility made wireless technology an easy choice.

"The business had already moved a couple of times; it didn't make sense to hard wire the place and spend a lot of money on the infrastructure," said Alex Kunz, chief technology officer at the San Diego-based firm.

But running a business on a Wi-Fi network presented plenty of its own challenges, particularly when it came to management.

Nicholas K. has two offices – the one in California and a branch in New York -- but it has only six full-time employees. Since the New York office doesn't have any IT staff, Kunz has to manage the entire wireless network from San Diego.

Remote management of a hard-wired network can be tough enough, but remote management of a wireless network presented some real challenges. For starters, the New York office was subject to ongoing attacks.

"There are always people probing the network," Kunz said. "I don't know if it's malicious or unintentional," but it has already resulted in the office's network going down.

Kunz had once helped a Fortune 500 energy company deploy a wireless LAN (WLAN) management system and, after a long vetting process there, he decided on a product from the same vendor, Sunnyvale, Calif.-based AirMagnet Inc.

AirMagnet Enterprise 5.0 is designed to help businesses remotely manage multiple WLANs at sites worldwide from a centralized location. Though Kunz has a very small operation, he had the same remote management needs of a large corporation.

AirMagnet's product monitors the network using on-site edge sensors. They collect packets and analyze them for trends that indicate attacks such as denial-of-service, dictionary, man-in-the-middle and others. The results are sent back to the main office where they can be acted upon.

AirMagnet Enterprise tracks 120 different types of network problems, about 60% of which are related to security and 40% related to management, said Rick Mironov, AirMagnet's vice president of marketing.

Such systems that can handle multi-site management of WLANs and management of multi-vendor systems are becoming increasingly important, said Craig Mathias, principal with Framingham, Mass.-based Farpoint Group.

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Businesses are increasingly relying on WLANs, especially in branch and remote offices. In addition, as businesses grow through acquisition, they are likely to have to manage inherited WLANs with equipment from multiple vendors.

"Any good management system needs to be able to replicate functions across multiple sites to ensure that they have the same security policies, alerts and alarms and monitoring," Mathias said.

It is likely that in four years or so, the functions that AirMagnet offers will become part of network management and monitoring packages, such as IBM's Tivoli or Unicenter from Computer Associates International Inc.

But, in the meantime, he said overlay products such as AirMagnet's offer a level of management sophistication and flexibility that business need to safely incorporate WLANs.

So far, it's a strategy that has worked for Nicholas K. "Initially, we overlooked the ROI because we didn't want to get caught with our pants down," Kunz said. "But this has become a central part of our strategy."

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