Wireless LAN testing to meet security concerns

Sandia National Laboratories has begun testing wireless LANs to determine whether they can meet the kind of rigorous security required for any Department of Energy (DOE) facility.

Pace VanDevender, CIO at Albuquerque, N.M.-based Sandia, said the lab has begun limited testing of wireless LANs in an isolated test bed outside secure areas because, in his view, “wireless is the wave of the future.”

VanDevender said that although Sandia, which also has facilities in California, currently has a ban on all wireless networks, the utility of wireless LANs – especially the ability to log on and gain access to data anywhere without the need for Ethernet cabling – makes a compelling business process case.

That approach contrasts sharply with a temporary ban on wireless LANs instituted last month by another DOE lab, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, Calif. Los Alamos National Laboratory in Los Alamos, N.M., has also started a security review of its wireless LANs, which could result in their elimination, according to lab spokesman Kevin O’Rourke.

He said Los Alamos, where the first atom bomb was developed, currently operates wireless LANs in three buildings located outside secure areas. Depending on how secure the LANs are found to be, “they may be eliminated,” O’Rourke said. He didn’t know when that decision would be made but said the larger issue of wireless LANs and security at DOE facilities may be driven by policy at the national level.

Despite security concerns, VanDevender said in an interview that wireless LANs “make it much easier to use and share information in an ad hoc and spontaneous way.” Potential new hires who come from college campuses with a robust wireless LAN infrastructure want to work in an environment where they can be “online all the time,” he said.

VanDevender also said he believes the use of campuswide wireless LANs could eventually lead to changes in business by providing a kind of connectivity that leads to collaborative work and decision-making.

Dennis Eaton, chairman of the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance in Mountain View, Calif., said VanDevender’s experience reflects the early adoption of wireless LANs by colleges – a move that means employers are now seeing job candidates who expect constant connectivity.

“A younger generation has grown up with this kind of technology always at its disposal,” Eaton said.

VanDevender said Sandia is running a small-scale test of wireless LANs outside the labs’ secure areas to better understand security issues about a network technology that has been proved to be inherently insecure. He declined to identify what security issues Sandia is examining or what kind of add-on products are being tested.

Eaton acknowledged the need to balance security concerns with business needs and said that “both can be satisfied.”

Wireless LANs that cover entire corporate campuses, or in the case of the DOE labs, widely scattered research facilities, can “fundamentally change behaviour patterns in the way people do their business,” Eaton said. But those advantages must be weighed against the sensitivity and security of data sent over the network.

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