One of the more popular events this year at the COMNET conference and exhibition in Washington, D.C. was a session that promised free tips from analysts on how to save time and money when planning, deploying, installing and managing wireless systems. We won't steal the thunder of fellow panelists by revealing their tips in this column, although if you drop us an e-mail we will pass your request along to them and they will most likely end it to you directly. We will, however, offer a few of the tips that we conveyed to the COMNET audience.
When thinking about wireless security, try to think in terms of end-to-end solutions. If you secure just the wireless part of your network, serious vulnerabilities can and do still exist in other parts of your network -- especially those parts that offer "tunneled" access to your sensitive corporate data. What's needed is security that covers all links in your enterprise network value chain -- from server to client. And don't forget to encrypt sensitive data stored on the server and the client as well. It is a good policy to remember that security isn't just about encryption, it is also about authentication, authorization and accounting -- something we like to refer to as the "Triple A" approach to network security, with apologies to the popular automobile club. In general, think about enterprise-wide security, and not just air-link protection.
Although most people think tiny antennae and wireless access points when thinking of non-wired connectivity, there are other cost-effective alternatives out there. One of these is satellite-based wireless communications. One system in particular, the Ashton 2100 PC is actually a very capable unit that features multiple USB ports, up to a 60G-byte hard drive and even a Firewire connection. In order to make use of a mobile satellite connection, all you need is a single USB port for the satellite modem, the appropriate power connections (no big deal on today's SUVs that can power a small city block with their on-board converters and outlets), and a satellite dish from one of many providers.
One source for such systems is Ground Control, located in San Luis Obispo, CA. This company offers a complete mobile satellite system, called Data Storm, which can be used for mobile Internet access, voice over IP connections, and can even receive DirecTV broadcast signals. The service is also available for a flat monthly rate. It is recommended, though, that you have a secure place to mount your dish.
One of the most important first things a user can do in terms of in-building wireless is to map out wireless access points and coverage areas before installing and deploying the network. Unfortunately, this is not always done correctly or at all in many situations. One "after solution", however, is to make use of currently-available tools that allow you to visually monitor the RF signals that emanate from each wireless access point in your building. By using such tools, you can shift your AP resources around to make allowances for a chimney or metal structures -- adjusting coverage and transmission much like a Wi-Fi air traffic controller.
Wireless visualization can be taken a step further as AP (access point) manufacturers start incorporating technology developed by Propagate Networks, which not only let's you see what is happening at each access point in your network, but is designed to actually shift and balance wireless resources to overcome weak or dead zones and compensate for architectural challenges. This technology can also be used to limit wireless access to a particular area of a building, or momentarily turn down the power on a single access point that senses an unauthorized intrusion.
When planning mobile applications, think Internet-based standards. While it is possible to develop applications that are bound to a given network and subscriber unit, it's best to use a more general-purpose approach based on Internet standards -- HTTP, HTML, SSL, and so on. By thinking Internet, it will be easy to deploy across a larger number of wireless (and wired) networks, and a broader range of subscriber units.
While 802.11b is all the rage, and highly compatible and higher speed 802.11g is presently the darling of the trade press, consider using 802.11a-based wireless LANs. 802.11g may offer faster speeds and is backward compatible, but most users in the trenches and cloistered analysts like us believe there is no real need for backwards compatibility. It most cases it is definitely a better move to make use of the available airwaves by moving some of your traffic to the 5.2 GHz bands, which is the playground for 802.11a systems. With recent FCC rule changes, there is now 455 MHz of spectrum available for 802.11a, compared with 84 MHz for 802.11g and 802.11b combined. Triple-mode clients will also drop dramatically in price, so reserving a faster access path for more sensitive data may soon be a very affordable option.
Tim Scannell is the president and chief analyst with Shoreline Research, a Quincy, Mass.-based consulting company specializing in mobile and wireless technology and initiatives. Shoreline works with end users, looking to implement mobile solutions, and vendors, developing new products and seeking business and customer opportunities. The company also specializes in training and strategic planning projects. For more information on Shoreline Research and the company's strategic services please go to http://www.shorelineresearch.com.