Wireless LANs

Wireless LANs<@VM>These tools can give you the freedom to roam

Emerging standards and interoperable products may soon have network administrators beaming

By Mark A. Kellner

Special to GCN

Old-timers'that is, those who recall the days before CDs, cassettes and even 8-track tapes'had hi-fi, a reference to high-fidelity sound.

Californians have Di-Fi, the generally affectionate nickname for Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

Now, information technology managers, not to be left hi and dry, have Wi-Fi.

No, it's not that the Golden State's senior solon has emigrated to Wisconsin. Wi-Fi is shorthand for the certification of networking products by the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance (WECA) and its deployment of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers' 802.11b wireless LAN standard. Products built to that standard operate in the 2.4-GHz radio band and transmit at a raw data rate of 11 Mbps.

The breakthrough to such a high transmission speed came with the development and ratification of the 802.11b standard about three years ago. Exponentially faster than the 1-Mbps to 2-Mbps speed of plain 802.11 systems, the wireless networks boasted capabilities that called for serious examination by IT managers and end users. What's more, makers decided to shed proprietary notions in favor of an open architecture that literally allowed a thousand LANs to bloom quickly.

Performance has lived up to the promise: Users can get wired Ethernet throughput, without wires, in office and campus settings. And Wi-Fi's usefulness isn't limited by a single office setting; telecommuting users can set up 802.11b systems at home, and can access public Wi-Fi networks at conferences, airports and even coffee shops. A trendy bistro in Santa Monica, Calif., offers Wi-Fi service at 10 cents per minute.

Some hotel rooms are being wired for Wi-Fi, and many college campuses'most recently Philadelphia's Drexel University'are adopting the standard.

51 manufacturers

A variety of manufacturers also have come on board, which is what led to the formation of the alliance. In August 1999, WECA founding members 3Com Corp.; Cisco Systems Inc.; Intersil Corp. of Irvine, Calif.; Lucent Technologies Inc.; Nokia Corp. and Symbol Technologies Inc. of Holtsville, N.Y., united to drive the adoption of one globally accepted standard for high-speed wireless local area networking, IEEE 802.11b.

According to WECA, 'unified support of this standard will facilitate the rapid deployment and adoption of these products to ensure global, broadband wireless connectivity across the enterprise, small office, public access and home markets.' As of August, 51 companies around the world had signed on to the project.

A key function of the group is to define a test suite used to certify that a member's products interoperate with other products. An independent lab operated by Agilent Technologies Inc., Silicon Valley Networking Lab of San Jose, Calif. (www.svnl.com), conducts the testing. When a product successfully passes the test, it will be granted the Wi-Fi seal of interoperability.

That interoperability, experts agree, will provide several benefits to users. One is the adoption of the 802.11b standard by organizations. If a variety of products adhere to the same standard, choices increase'always a good thing for buyers'and competition is more likely to drive prices down.

Enterasys Networks' RoamAbout Access Point and Wireless Radio Card connect the wireless to the wired.

The other is to keep Wi-Fi in focus as a wireless networking protocol. The ability to use the same card to go from office workgroup to conference room to convention site to home is a powerful motivation to implement the same standard.

Wi-Fi is not the only wireless standard, though. In fact, Wi-Fi supporters can expect renewed competition, at least in the home computing market, from the Home Radio Frequency Working Group's Shared Wireless Access Protocol. At the end of August, the Federal Communications Commission ruled that HomeRF'which is supported by Intel Corp., Motorola Inc., Proxim Inc. of Sunnyvale, Calif., and others'could begin working with SWAP in bandwidths of up to 10 Mbps, after having been limited to 1.6 Mbps.

Ron Seide, director of product marketing for Cisco's wireless group, said the move toward standards has pushed wireless LANs into a broad range of business uses.

'The features and standardization and performance [of 802.11] now enables, and only now enables, the technology to begin to move towards critical mass. What's been interesting for me is in the prestandard days, or early days, wireless had one set of customers: retail, warehousing, health care and education, just in vertical markets. What we see now with the high-speed standard is that the customer base for wireless has grown to be identical to that for the customer base of wired technology,' he said.

Seide also said wireless is the key to real mobility in computing.

'Notebook manufacturers talk about anytime, anywhere computing,' he said. 'Our view is that for access to remote data via corporate LANs, an intranet or the Internet, you need an anytime, anywhere broadband link, and that's what 802.11b is all about.'

Makes sense

Tips for buyers
Ad-hoc mode. A client setting that provides independent peer-to-peer connectivity in a wireless LAN. Such modes also are used in public wireless LAN settings. An alternative setup allows PCs to communicate with each other through an access point.

Access point. A wireless antenna broadcasting data to compliant antennas attached to computers, usually via PC Card. Ranges vary by manufacturer and model, and are also limited by Federal Communications Commission regulations. Large office areas and conference rooms can require more than one access point to assure good coverage.

Infrastructure mode. Unlike the ad-hoc mode, in which PCs communicate directly with each other over a wireless LAN, clients set in infrastructure mode each pass data through a central access point. The point not only mediates wireless network traffic in the immediate neighborhood but also provides communication with the wired network.

Media Access Control. The MAC address, which is a radio protocol on wireless LAN cards, is used by the network to route data to the access point for broadcast.

Network address translation. The translation of an IP address used within one network to another, known IP address within another network. One network is designated the internal network; the other is the external. The internal network then appears as one entity to the outside world. In the case of wireless LANs with an outside Internet connection, the NAT capability of Internet sharing software allows the sharing of one Internet connection among all the connected wireless PCs.

Wired equivalent privacy. Data encryption, as defined by the 802.11 standard, to prevent both access to the network by intruders using similar wireless LAN equipment and the capture of wireless LAN traffic through eavesdropping. WEP allows the administrator to define a set of respective keys for each wireless network user based on a key string passed through the WEP encryption algorithm. Access is denied to anyone who does not have an assigned key.

For more information, visit the Wireless Ethernet Communications Association Web site at www.wi-fi.org.

The adoption of these standards also is good for the corporate bottom line: 'Our own business is tripling every 12 months. We're shipping every product that we build,' said Allan Scott, a vice president of Lucent Technologies, which over the next 12 months will spin off its wireless LAN division into a separate unit.

Scott, who earlier in his career did two tours with the State Department, said the use of wireless has real appeal for government installations.

'One of the characteristics of most government facilities is the physical plant is very old. You have very heavy construction, making it very difficult to upgrade the plant to support high-speed LAN wiring. There are also asbestos issues,' Scott said. 'One solution would be a high-speed wireless LAN. It would be really nice to tell employees: Here, take a PC Card adapter.'

Scott also said the security of networks using the 802.11b standard compares well to conventional systems. 'Wireless networks are probably more secure, since everything is encrypted with 128-bit encryption,' he said.

If Wi-Fi is the right technology coming at the right time, how should IT managers implement it?

Lucent's Scott noted that 802.11b installations are scalable.

'Propagation [of the wireless signal] is better with cubicles,' he said. 'If you have lots of offices, then you'll need more access points; more walls means less signal strength; it's very much like a cordless phone. If you need better coverage, just install another access point. Here you can start off with two and add.'

Cisco's Seide said that while Wi-Fi products are interoperable, they don't all work alike. 'It depends on how one has designed the technology, how efficient their Media Access Controller is, how they handle multitask propagation and interference,' he said. 'Those environmental considerations can be addressed through superior signal processing and better filter designs.'

IT managers need to be concerned that Wi-Fi installations meet stringent security requirements, Seide added.

'[Vendors] can sell a product that is broadcasting unencrypted data not only through their facility, but outside their walls. If security is an issue, one needs not only to go with product that supports WEP [Wired Equivalent Privacy], but also 40-bit or 128-bit security encryption,' he said.

Also, it helps to consider the management aspects of a wireless LAN, Seide said.

'When this [technology] was proprietary, wireless was kind of an island, and not integrated into LAN administration. Now, wireless is being integrated into infrastructure and being integrated into LAN administration from an organizational perspective,' he said. 'One has to be mindful of the quality of the management package that comes with the wireless package. Integration into [Hewlett-Packard Co.'s] OpenView and [Computer Associates International Inc.'s] Unicenter will become increasingly important. Now it is a technology truly ready for the enterprise.'

What's ahead for Wi-Fi? 3Com Corp.'s Rick Bilodeau said makers are talking about 22-Mbps speed from 5-GHz access points. But such systems will have limitations and higher costs because more access points will be needed, he said. For most government uses, he said, current applications require low enough bandwidth to work well with today's 802.11b standard, while delivering performance that should delight most end users.

Mark A. Kellner is a free-lance technology writer in Marina Del Rey, Calif. E-mail him at [email protected].

CompanyProductMain functionsPlatform
Buffalo Technology Inc.
Torrance, Calif.
AirStation access pointBridges the Ethernet backbone
of a wired network and a
wireless client, can also
connect to dialup modem lines
Windows, MacEthernet, modemWorks with Macs and PCs$279
AirStation PC Card NICTransmits data to and from the
network via an access point
Windows, MacPC Card slotWorks with Macs and PCs$149
AirStation PCI adapter
for PC Card NIC
Allows PC Card installationWindowsPCI busFits in PCI bus slot$49
AirStation ISA adapter
for PC Card NIC
Allows PC Card installationWindowsISA busFits in PCI bus slot$49
Cisco Systems Inc.
San Jose, Calif.
Aironet 340 Series Direct
Sequence Ethernet Bridge
Bridges wireless LANs between
buildings on a campus
WindowsEthernetUp to 25-mile range, 128-bit
Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP)
Aironet 340
Series Access Point
Bridges the Ethernet backbone
of a wired network and
a wireless client
WindowsEthernet128-bit WEP$1,299
Aironet 340
Series PC Card
Transmits data to and from the
network via an access point
Windows, MacPC Card slot128-bit WEP$249
Aironet 340
Series PCI Adapter
Fits in PCI Bus slot;
wireless antenna
WindowsPCI bus128-bit WEP$349
Aironet 340
Series ISA Adapter
Fits in ISA Bus slot;
wireless antenna
WindowsISA bus128-bit WEP$349
Compaq Computer Corp.
WL400 11 Mbps Wireless
LAN Hardware
Access Point
Bridges the Ethernet backbone
of a wired network and
a wireless client
WindowsEthernet128-bit WEP$899
WL300 11 Mbps Wireless
LAN Software Access Point
Works with PC-based antenna
to create an access point for
a wireless LAN
WindowsEthernet; PC
antenna (PCI
card or PC card)
128-bit WEP$125
WL100 11 Mbps Wireless
Transmits data to and from the
network via an access point
WindowsPC Card slot128-bit WEP$199
WL200 11 Mbps Wireless
Transmits data to and from the
network via an access point
WindowsPCI bus slot128-bit WEP$199
Enterasys Networks
Rochester, N.H.
RoamAbout Access PointBridges the Ethernet backbone
of a wired network and
a wireless client
WindowsEthernet128-bit WEP$750
Wireless Radio Card
Transmits data to and from the
network via an access point
WindowsPC Card slot128-bit WEP$250
IBM Corp.
Armonk, N.Y.
High Rate
Wireless LAN PC Card
Transmits data to and from the
network via an access point
WindowsPC Card Slot128-bit WEP$179
Informatech Inc.
Chantilly, Va.
Lan2GoComplete, mobile, ruggedized
wireless LAN/WAN
NetWare, Unix
no requirements
Custom preconfigured (installation
included); indoor and outdoor
extended range options; encryption,
firewall and VPN options; PBX
integration available; shock-proof
cases; compatible with any
network technology
$40,000 up
Intermec Technologies Corp
Everett, Wash.
Intermec 2101 Universal
Office Access Point
Bridges the Ethernet backbone
of a wired network and
a wireless client
WindowsEthernet128-bit WEP$859
Lucent Technologies Inc.
(to become Avaya Inc.
on Oct. 1)
Murray Hill, N.J.
Orinoco PC Card GoldTransmits data to and from the
network via an access point
WindowsPC Card Slot128-bit WEP$179
Orinoco PCI/ISA AdapterFits PCI or ISA slots to allow
use of PC Card antenna
WindowsPCI bus or ISA bus128-bit WEP$70
Access Point
Bridges the Ethernet backbone
of a wired network and
a wireless client
WindowsEthernet128-bit WEP$739
3Com Corp.
Santa Clara, Calif.
AirConnect Wireless
LAN Access Point
Bridges the Ethernet backbone
of a wired network and a
wireless client
Wi-Fi (802.11b)
EthernetSecurity controls, embedded HTTP
server, remote configuration
AirConnect Wireless
Transmits data to and from the
network via an access point
Win9x, NT,
2000, CE 2.11
PC Card slotWizard-based installation of client
software; 128-bit WEP encryption
AirConnect Wireless
LAN starter pack
Combines access point and
three PC Cards
Win9x, NT,
2000, CE 2.11
Ethernet, PC
Card slot
Combines features of Access
Point and PC Card


  • Records management: Look beyond the NARA mandates

    Pandemic tests electronic records management

    Between the rush enable more virtual collaboration, stalled digitization of archived records and managing records that reside in datasets, records management executives are sorting through new challenges.

  • boy learning at home (Travelpixs/Shutterstock.com)

    Tucson’s community wireless bridges the digital divide

    The city built cell sites at government-owned facilities such as fire departments and libraries that were already connected to Tucson’s existing fiber backbone.

Stay Connected