Weakened N+I show focuses on wireless, security

Last month’s NetWorld+Interop in Atlanta show drew smaller crowds and fewer vendors than in years past, but debates and discussions over the latest technologies were as spirited as ever.

Show organizers had trouble filling one exhibit hall at the Georgia World Congress Center, whereas in better times they packed two.

This year’s 180 exhibitors represent a 50 per cent dropoff from last year. Interop officials said they had yet to tally an attendance figure late last week but expected 30,000 – down 40 per cent from a year ago. The crowd appeared smaller than that, and many in attendance were questioning its future.

Vendors that showed up did not skimp on the usual marketing extravagances, such as dancers and magicians. Although Cisco Systems Inc., Microsoft Corp. and others that traditionally erect giant booths had much lower profiles, choosing to rent tiny booths or to conduct all meetings off the show floor.

Kicking things off on Tuesday, Foundry Networks Inc. CEO Bobby Johnson and Sprint Corp. president Ronald LeMay gave keynotes outlining the futures of wired and wireless networks, respectively.

Johnson said Ethernet would extend its dominance beyond LANs into WANs in the near future, as 10Gb/sec Ethernet becomes a cost-effective alternative to SONET in metropolitan-area networks. He also said the growth of 1000Base-T on servers and the desktop will spur the growth of 10G Ethernet in corporations.

“There’s no magic to 10-Gigabit Ethernet technology,” Johnson said. “The real magic will be getting the cost out of 10 Gigabit Ethernet, but that will happen.” While 10G Ethernet costs as much as US$75,000 per port now, Johnson said, he expects that to fall below $5,000 by 2006.

Sprint’s LeMay said wireless is key to the carrier’s road map for new services that let end users move smoothly from a wired network to a wireless one.

Sprint is working to address corporate customers’ concerns about wireless security, but he said more immediate attention is being paid to user expectations about speed, reliability and quality of wireless services. Customers should expect weaker service-level agreements (SLA) for wireless services, LeMay said.

“It’s not realistic to demand the same performance criteria in wireless and wired networks,” he said.

One of the best-attended areas of the show was the wireless security zone at iLabs, a NetWorld+ Interop-sponsored space for highlighting technologies. Demonstrations in that area were meant to show the benefits of wireless technology, how it might be exploited by attackers and the choices for blocking them, said Jan Trumbo, an iLabs volunteer and senior partner at Opus One Inc. of Tucson, Ariz.

Currently, running an IP Security (IPSec) VPN is the best way to safeguard a wireless network from intruders, said Leonard Levy, a consultant in Atlanta.

Levy urged network security staff to patrol their wired buildings in search of rogue access points installed by technophiles who could build wireless LANs within their offices and breach corporate security. “It’s much better for a corporation to step in and set up policies and security before there’s a problem,” he said.

But lesser protection than IPSec might be acceptable if the wireless data being sent isn’t sensitive. For instance, scanners in a warehouse transmitting inventory numbers to a database might not warrant the expense of elaborate security, said Stephen Cristol, who runs Formalis Software, an Atlanta Web developer. “You have to weigh the cost benefit. Five thousand dollars may be too much for what you’re trying to protect,” he said.

“Wireless security is like an oxymoron” in military circles, said Jim McEwan, COO of Technology Advancement Group (TAG), in Dulles, Va. Any transmission of data that emits electromagnetic waves is not considered secure, including copper wiring, and wireless broadcasts are the worst, he said. “It’s like nonprotected sex.”

McEwan said wireless technology is too valuable to ignore. “The question is who will come up with the secure solution,” he said.

A prevalent rumbling at the show was that a new encryption scheme for wireless networks had been approved by the secretive National Security Agency and would be announced soon.