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Wireless standards overview

Wireless local are networks (LANs) have a broad range of standards, some of which are well established and interoperable, others of which are still emerging, and when it comes to security standards, interoperability may be a way off yet.

Wireless local are networks (LANs) have a broad range of standards, some of which are well established and interoperable, others of which are still emerging, and when it comes to security standards, interoperability may be a way off yet.

The most talked about standards are the communication standards, 802.11a, b and g. Today, 802.11b access points that operate in the 2.4Ghz frequency with 11 Mbps throughput dominate the market. But that may soon change.

A new standard likely to be ratified later this year is 802.11g, which offers both higher throughput and backward compatibility with 802.11b access points. These access points operate in the same frequency but have a throughput of 54Mbps. Because 802.11g works in the same 2.4 GHz frequency as 802.11b, the systems are compatible, said Gemma Paulo, a senior analyst with In-Stat/MDR, a Scottsdale, Ariz., based research firm.

Another standard, 802.11a, offers the same high throughput. But these systems operate in the 5 Ghz spectrum, which is both an advantage and a drawback. Since they use a different frequency, they are not backward-compatible with the dominant 802.11b standard. However, 802.11a has already been ratified so interoperability among vendors is not a problem. And, because it uses a different frequency, there is much less interference.

In New York city's high rises, wireless LAN are so prevalent and so close together that it can often 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 spectrum. In that cluttered environment, 802.11a nodes may be the best solution, he said.

Security standards are much less cut and dried.

Basic wLAN security has a standard known as wireless encryption protocol (WEP), which is part of the 802.11b standard and is included in most enterprise-class wireless systems. But WEP is flawed and can be easily hacked into using tools readily available on the Internet.

In an attempt to address this weakness, manufacturers have come up with their own proprietary approaches. Manufacturers such as Holtsville, NY, wireless systems company, Symbol Technologies, Inc., and Cisco Systems, Inc. have developed enhancements to WEP that rotate the encryption key and require user authentication, both of which make it tougher for hackers to crack the code.

But these systems do not work in multi-vendor systems, said Al Potter, manager of the network security lab for the Herdon, VA, security certification company, ICSA Labs. Potter tests wireless security systems for interoperability and said that any enhancement beyond WEP causes problems when it is in a multi-vendor system.

The Wi-Fi Alliance is developing its own standard known as Wi-Fi Protective Access (WPA). Potter said this is a short-term fix and provides essentially a snapshot of the solutions currently on the market and a way to make them interoperable.

A more ambitious approach is being taken with the 802.1i and 802.1x standards. The 802.1i is focusing on a new encryption protocol that improves on WEP called temporal key integrity protocol. But that too is still on the horizon. Chris Kozup a senior research analyst with Stamford, Conn., research firm, the META Group said that testing of the protocol is not scheduled to begin until later this year.

User authentication is also working its way from proprietary approaches towards a standard. One of the most popular is known as LEAP -- lightweight extensible authentication protocol. LEAP was developed by Cisco systems, Inc. and is proprietary. However, to help grow the market, Cisco has been licensing LEAP for free to vendors to allow them to integrate LEAP into their clients and authentication servers.

But LEAP is facing a challenge from a standards-based approach called PEAP, protected extensible authentication protocol. PEAP was developed by Cisco and well as Microsoft and RSA Security, Inc., the Bedford, Mass. security systems vendor. PEAP uses a certificate approach to authentication where the user's identity is verified by a digital certificate.

While this approach is standards-based, it is not yet been ratified. So today there are still problems with interoperability and since PEAP is relatively new it only works with a Windows 2000 and Windows XP.

Today, most businesses are shying away from standards that have yet to be ratified, like 802.11g, or using proprietary solutions in security where it makes the most sense.

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