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Wireless LAN doesn't mean worriless LAN

Wireless LANs are cheap to buy and easy to install, but going wireless doesn't mean it's time to throw away your aspirin. Experts say rogue access points, stray signals and standards struggles should concern all wireless LAN managers. With new technology and new products emerging constantly, decision makers may find that there are no easy answers.

Many companies consider deploying wireless local area networks because they are relatively inexpensive and simple to install. However, wireless LANs require the same planning and management as any other enterprise technology.

Even though cheap access points -- which sell for a little over $100 each -- have helped spur enterprise wireless LAN implementations, they've also exposed companies to new threats. With so many laptops now equipped with 802.11b cards, employees are starting to install their own rogue access points, opening back doors through which hackers can sneak in.

Weeding out rogue access points is essential, and the process begins with the development of a clear wireless policy, said Chris Kozup, program director with the Stamford, Conn., research firm, Meta Group Inc. He said that an IT department need a policy that articulates the business' approach to wireless LANs and lets employees know about the dangers of dropping an unauthorized access point on the wall in their department.

The next step, Kozup said, is to conduct a network audit to determine whether there are rogue access points on the network. Once the network is cleared, then the planning for wireless can begin.

Security is perhaps the most pressing concern for companies considering wireless LANs. Wi-Fi networks broadcast data in way that is extremely easy for others to intercept. With no protections on a wireless LAN, it is simple for someone with a wireless-enabled laptop sitting in the company parking lot to pick up the Wi-Fi signal and access the network.

Craig Mathias, a principal with Framingham, Mass. research firm Farpoint Group, said that, for the highest levels of security, companies should always use a virtual private network (VPN).

"I think all traffic should be secured all the time; think about what it costs you if your data is compromised," Mathias said.

Today, 802.11b is the standard of choice for wireless LANs. 802.11b moves data at 11 Mbps at a frequency of 2.4 GHz. What's more, 802.11b cards are becoming standard fare in new laptops, and the technology is one of the few bright spots in the whole IT sector.

But, in some ways, its popularity is working against it. In New York City's high rises, wireless LANs are so prevalent and so close together that it can be tough to get a clear signal, said Mark Van Pelt, a wireless LAN consultant with Manchester Wireless in East Brunswick, N.J.

In addition, microwaves and cordless phones also operate at the 2.4 GHz frequency. Since wireless LANs only have three channels in the 2.4 GHz frequency, as more people use the network, it may not be possible to establish a clear signal.

That clutter has made some users favor the 802.11a standard, which has throughput of 54 Mbps, much higher than 802.11b. This standard also operates at the 5 GHz frequency, where there is much less interference, and it has 12 channels available, giving it much more room for growth.

Another standard likely to be ratified later this year is 802.11g. It is backward- compatible with 802.11b, but it works on the same busy 2.4 GHz frequency.

While this may seem like an impossible clutter of standards to wade through, it will soon be much less of a concern, Mathias said. In fact, by next year, the top notebook manufacturers are expected to develop clients that will be compatible with 802.11a and g, and access points will likely move in the same direction.

Integrated standards may not make it any easier to manage wireless access points. Still, companies such as ReefEdge Inc. and Bluesocket Inc. provide both security and management solutions for wireless LANs. They place much of the intelligence at the edge of the network and work with smart access points.

Another emerging management approach uses dumb access points attached to wireless switches. Companies such as Symbol Technologies Inc. provide these wireless switches. With this approach, the Wi-Fi network can be managed from centralized switches, simplifying management, Kozup said.

In the end, Kozup said, the key to a successful wireless deployment is to ignore the price tag and just treat it like any other deployment.


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