Wired-out: deploying a wireless LAN

In a world where data flows more abundantly than water, staying connected is becoming increasingly critical to the routine of every day life. In typical office environments, a traditional wired LAN (local area network) will do the trick to keep you and your employees on the same page. But, in environments where wiring is too difficult or too costly a task, other options may be the answer.

Enter the wireless LAN (WLAN). WLANs act similar to a traditional wired LAN but are less costly and much simpler to implement. But before you unplug your wires for a seemingly easy wireless segment, there are a few things to consider.

The Wireless Bandwagon

Right off the bat, wireless should not be seen as a replacement to the wired LAN because the technologies are complementary, says Jason Smolek, research analyst with Framingham, Mass.-based IDC. He says that many large enterprises want the wired LAN because it handles security and scalability issues better than wireless.

Ken Dulaney, vice-president of mobile computing with San Jose, Calif.-based Gartner agrees. He says that because wired LANs have much higher bandwidth, they are more secure and less susceptible to cyber attacks or break-ins.

Smolek says that WLANs are not necessary for every enterprise, small business or branch office, but are beneficial in allowing for mobility.

“Wireless makes sense where buildings are old and can’t be wired, or where they can’t afford leased lines or fibre,” he says.

Step by step

So, you’ve decided that your old building will cost you too much to wire – now what? According to Derick Linegar, consulting systems engineer for Cisco Systems Canada, the initial steps are the most difficult for people to understand.

“When it comes to a wireless infrastructure it is very difficult for any engineer to say off the top of his head, ‘Oh, you need 25 (access points),'” Linegar says. “(Wireless) becomes totally dependent on a number of factors, typically factors concerning usage, where it is going to be positioned…it is very difficult and very wrong for a vendor to say you can make-do with 15 boxes before even seeing the environment and doing a site survey.”

Bruce Comeau, wireless business networking specialist with 3Com Canada in Toronto says 3Com conducts site surveys in order to determine the number of antennas or access points a customer needs for full wireless coverage.

“We try to understand the environment as far as buildings and infrastructure,” Comeau says. “Are we connecting buildings together? Are we connecting users within a building? Once we understand that we can start looking at the scope, the size and the number of users. Once that is complete it is very simple.”

Feeling insecure

IDC’s Smolek and Gartner’s Dulaney agree that security is the most important and sometimes most difficult aspect in deploying WLANs. Dulaney says that the current wireless standard, IEEE 802.11b, which operates at 2.4GHz, is what he calls a 75 per cent standard – one that is missing essential things including security. With several new standards emerging including 802.11a, which operates at 5GHz, Dulaney cautions customers to not get caught up in the hype.

“The first thing I would do is not worry about (new standards) at this point except for security,” he says. “How you address security is going to be important. I would pick one vendor that meets my needs and use 802.11b for now. When you have people trying to sell you 802.11a … I’d wait … unless you have specific needs for 54Mbps. All this talk about upgrades is highly suspect.”

Kelly Kanellakis, director of technology, office of the CTO for Enterasys in Mississauga, Ont., says that customers need to remember to turn on the security features – network name and encryption – when implementing access points. He says that with many vendor products, the default is set to have these security features turned off. He adds that much if not all cyber attacks on wireless networks occur within the 40-bit space. Enterasys, along with many of the big vendors, operate in the 128-bit space.

IDC’s Smolek says that as an extra security measure, vendors that are targeting the large enterprise are adding routing capabilities or VPN tunnelling with their existing boxes. He also adds that vendors are looking to incorporate a proposed standard, IEEE 802.1x, which is based on the Microsoft standard EAP (early authentication protocol), that is simply a log-in user ID that uses dynamic keys.

What’s your problem?

Across the board, as in any deployment of new technology, there is bound to be some common problems. Cisco’s Linegar, as well as Enterasys’s Kanellakis say that poor site surveys or not conducting a site survey lead to mistakes and errors.

“Instead of doing the survey, (some people) just eyeball it,” Kanellakis says. “The reality is that you can’t see what is behind those walls. There could be pipes, metal, (or) steel reinforcements and that could adversely affect the implementation.”

Linegar recommends having the vendor who will be supplying the technology also conduct the site survey to ensure a thorough investigation of the geographic area.

“We build an infrastructure based on the site survey,” he says. “You can never spend enough money on a site survey.”

Linegar noted a particular case in which Cisco was to provide WLAN infrastructure for a downtown Toronto hospital. The hospital wanted to have nurses wirelessly connected while administering patient medication in order to have patient records constantly updated. The hospital had contracted out its site survey, and had targeted specific areas of the hospital to be connected. Linegar says that what the contractor who conducted the survey failed to acknowledge was that nurses, rather than update patient files as they walked the halls, would enter data from the break room – the one room that was not connected.

Decisions, decisions…

Analysts agree that selecting the right vendor is paramount to the successful implementation of your WLAN. The general consensus is to make sure that the vendor selected is WiFi certified, which ensures the interoperability of products from one vendor to another.

Dulaney also recommends choosing a vendor that offers a wide array of products.

“You want to make sure…that vendors have products that can go in your corporate headquarters all the way to products you want to have in your house,” he says.

IDC’s Smolek recommends that customers seek vendors who also offer services above and beyond the product lines.

“Can this (solution) go beyond wireless LAN? Can it do routing or VPN capabilities? It’s all immature technology. Right now they are dumb boxes. You want to make sure that you get full coverage.”

Enterasys’s Kanellakis cautions that smaller, low-cost vendors are not always a best bet.

“I think you’ll find a lot of holes in what they do (in terms of security,)” he says. “There is so much choice and people are not going with the big vendors and you have to watch out for that. They go for the ones from a little computer store because they got a great price.”

Word to the wise, Kanellakis says, “You get what you pay for.”