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IT managers look for more control over wireless networks

IT managers who are charged with managing wireless networks have more on their mind than deployment and security. Their latest concern? Managing and tracking mobile users.

Jerry M. is the head of a fairly good size health care organization serving a large metropolitan area in the Midwest. He is firmly convinced that wireless and mobile systems are the way to go in terms of boosting productivity and improving the doctor-patient relationship. Like all proponents of this technology, however, he recognizes that going mobile is not without its challenges.

His most pressing problem right now is not making sure everyone gets a reliable network connection, or that users can easily log on to and use the system. Instead, Jerry M -- not his real name, as most IT managers prefer to remain anonymous when it comes to talking about their problems and challenges -- is almost entirely focused on managing and tracking mobile users within the mobile network.

In fact, his primary criteria for selecting and purchasing new products and technologies are manageability and control, or as he puts it, "our interest is in any 'bells and whistles' [that] manage and remotely touch customers and clients...we select products based on manageability."

Not surprisingly, Jerry M. is not the only IT executive who looks closely at the manageability structure of a wireless product before signing purchasing orders. Increasingly, IT managers and IT-savvy executives are basing their selection decision on the capabilities of management systems. They are also shifting their research away from their primary network providers -- such as Cisco Systems, which now accounts for roughly 70% of the installed enterprise market -- and evaluating third-party solutions that are compatible with existing technologies, but take things a step further by layering on manageability tools and technologies.

Caring about caveats

At a large architectural and engineering company, also located in the Midwest, the emphasis is on centralized management and control, as opposed to a distributed system spread among the many existing wireless networks in the firm.

"If you are talking about centralized versus distributed WLAN management and security, then the choice would always be centralized," says the IT director. "The caveat is that to impose centralized management requires the WLAN to be an adjunct to the wired network."

Fortunately, there are solutions available that offer a way to easily build centralized management and control systems on top of current industry-standard wireless networking architectures. Some are better than others; a few give the illusion of manageability without adding much more than a colorful user interface and a passive view of what is happening within a wireless net. Here are some tips we collected from our talks with both enterprise end users and wireless solutions vendors:

  1. Don't be fooled into thinking the answer to improving wireless management and control is to buy and deploy more infrastructure. Most wireless systems, if implemented with some degree of planning, are capable of handling average user loads and can easily be expanded without impacting the host wired network. Upgrades or improvements can usually be made by layering solutions on current infrastructures, and the best tactic is usually to develop a management structure that exists separate from both wired and wireless systems within a company.
  2. Look for solutions that not only offer a way to manage and control existing systems, but also possibly lower the hardware requirements of the central server. For example, a large company like Federal Express might have 35,000 or 40,000 mobile users linked to a single wireless and wired network, so it wouldn't make economic or technical sense to add a management structure that drains even more resources from this central location.
  3. Managing a wireless network is important, but not the only consideration when it comes to installing a system essentially exists as both a watchdog and traffic cop for mobile users. IT executives should also look for systems that can easily be tweaked to handle applications updates and virus protection throughout a network. These solutions should also offer the ability to automatically dispense software patch updates. Right now, there are just one or two players in the market that can provide cabilities that do not impact current network conditions.
  4. Finally, investigate management and control systems that can not only spot rogue users, spoof access points and differentiate between friendly and not-so friendly wireless AP associations, but that can also look at installed applications throughout a wireless network, and identify which applications are installed and which might be missing or outdated. This may not be a huge problem when a network has 10 or even 50 users, but it becomes a significant concern when there are 100, 1,000, or 50,000 uses on a network.

Tim Scannell is President of Shoreline Research, a mobile and wireless consultancy that specializes in enterprise end-user issues and solutions (www.shorelineresearch.com).

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