New Wi-Fi capability poses problems for IT managers


The short range Wi-Fi wireless technology is able to perform some neat tricks, but an improvement to the wireless standard promises to make it easier to share files directly between devices.

The Wi-Fi Alliance, an industry group that promotes the technology, said Wednesday that work nearing completion on a standard called Wi-Fi Direct that will enable Wi-Fi devices to connect without joining a wireless network or hotspot.

When the specification is finalized and Wi-Fi Direct-enabled products are on store shelves, which the alliances hopes will be next summer, smartphones will be able to beam data files to each other using Wi-Fi, while laptop users will be able to send presentations wirelessly to office projectors.

Wi-Fi Direct will work with any 802.11 a/b/g/n device through a software upgrade, although an Intel spokesman said manufacturers will have to decide which operating system to make it compatible with.

However an industry analyst warns that Wi-Fi Direct may open a “Pandora’s Box” of security concerns.

“This has the same implications for IT as the flash drive did,” said Chris Silva, a senior wireless analyst at Forrester Research. Flash drives open the possibility that an organization’s staff can walk out with gigabytes of sensitive information in their pockets and that visitors can infect a network by plugging one of the diminutive units into a PC.

Some organizations responded by banning any removable storage device. But, Silva said, “this doesn’t necessarily solve the problem, because now you’ve got the ability to wirelessly transfer files.”

In theory, he added, Wi-Fi Direct is a “non-network technology” that would be invisible to corporate networks. On the other hand, he added, because of the capabilities it might end up encouraging more users in an organization to bring in more Wi-Fi-enabled devices.

So, he concluded, Wi-Fi Direct “further broadens the vector through which malware, information leakage and the like can take place.”

Not necessarily, said Gary Martz, a senior product manager for wireless products at Intel Corp., a major backer of the proposed standard. Wi-Fi Direct will include the standard WPA2 encryption of all 802.11 devices, he said. In addition, network managers will be able to prevent wireless devices from gaining network access through their management software to the corporate LAN.

“We’ve tried to promote the technologies and features that the corporate IT wouldn’t have to fear this,” he said.

There are new opportunities for organizations that currently have wireless connectivity for printers but for security deny access to them to visitors. Wi-Fi Direct allows the creation of designated printers for outsiders, Martz said.

Similarly, in a conference room visitors can have wireless access to a digital projector instead of having to connect a cable. The projector, he added, can be “firewalled” so there is no wireless access.

Wi-Fi already comes with an infrastructure mode for wireless LANs, and an ad hoc mode for peer-to-peer connectivity, Martz said. However, the ad hoc mode has to be manually enabled through software, which drops the connection to the wireless LAN. Wi-Fi Direct keeps the dual connection. “One of the things we held very sacred when we developed the Wi-Fi Direct specification to not disrupt the users’ current and primary use of Wi-Fi, which is wireless LAN connection,” he said.

Another chipmaker backing Wi-Fi Direct is Atheros Communications, which has a similar technology called Atheros Direct Connect that will be backward compatible.

Initially, consumer devices will be the ones to take the greatest advantage of Wi-Fi Direct, including keyboards, game consoles and smartphones, some of which use Bluetooth for wireless connectivity.

 “This is a new way to think of a personal area network,” which is wirelessly covering a room in a house. said Edgar Figueroa, executive director of the Wi-Fi Alliance. “Now instead of [coverage] in the 1-metre range it will cover the whole home.”

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