Face-off: Enterprise wireless LANs

Do enterprise WLANs make sense? Site Editor Sue Fogarty says that the security risks are too big, but Assistant Site Editor Krissi Danielsson says WLANs are natural and inevitable.

Face-offWireless LANs are popping up everywhere from Kinko's to Starbucks, but do they make sense in the enterprise?

While SearchNetworking.com Site Editor Sue Fogarty argues that the convenience provided by a wireless LAN doesn't justify the security risks, Assistant Site Editor Krissi Danielsson disputes that claim, saying the transition to wireless LANs is natural and inevitable.

Who makes the better case? You decide, and then let us know!

Wireless LAN equals worrisome LAN

By Susan Fogarty, Site Editor

At a recent conference, I was asked to identify the major drivers for wireless LAN (WLAN) use in the enterprise. I was, I confess, a bit stumped. "Ubiquity," one of my colleagues chimed in, "and flexibility." I can think of a lot of things that are ubiquitous and flexible -- TiVo, Visa check cards, Saran Wrap -- but that doesn't mean it's my IT department's responsibility to provide them for me. Ubiquity and flexibility just aren't attributes capable of driving a major technology overhaul in most corporations these days.

I grew up in New England, where Puritan ethics still hold sway and truisms like "waste not, want not" and "make do with what you have" roll daily off parents' tongues. To me, implementing wireless connectivity across an entire organization -- for the sake of mere convenience -- is, at best, an unnecessary luxury and, at worst, a risky excess that caters to the technologically elite.

I'll admit that there are industries, such as retail and health care, in which wireless technology is extremely effective. But those businesses make up a small percentage of all IT users. According to a recent report by InfoTech, about half of U.S. businesses have deployed wireless LANs, but those deployments are narrow, reaching only 10% of employees. That makes sense; only small areas of any company actually need wireless access. Going wireless also makes sense for homes and buildings that lack a wired network infrastructure. Those niches are where wireless should stake its claim and prosper.

Which factors are tempting corporations to unplug? The most legitimate drivers I hear about are the low cost of implementation and the increased productivity of employees. It's true that deploying a wireless LAN can be cheap, if you're installing it in a small business or branch office with low-bandwidth demands. But when you begin implementing enterprise-class equipment and accessing mission-critical data, costs escalate quickly.

A recent Gartner report estimates that the simple act of supplying a user with a Wi-Fi-enabled notebook increases the device's total cost of ownership between 3% and 4%. When you add on the additional software, administration, maintenance, support, training and security measures that need to be taken, any savings you may have anticipated quickly evaporates. Gains in productivity are also elusive. A different Gartner report warns that where a WLAN is used instead of a wired LAN, productivity is likely to drop because of slower network speeds over the shared wireless connection.

If the drivers for WLANs are blurry, the drawbacks are crystal clear -- security, security, and security. Despite claims from a number of WLAN vendors that the security issues are all hype, the IT pros I know who are actually managing wireless networks tell me that security is difficult to implement and that it requires constant and vigilant monitoring. Implementing a wireless LAN that is just as secure as a wired LAN is dizzyingly complex. For state-of-the-art WLAN security, an administrator must be knowledgeable about encryption and authentication, and must be able to integrate the WLAN into an IPsec-based VPN with continually updated security policies.

Wireless access also may compromise your network in new ways. Not only must administrators worry about what employees are doing on company time, but they also need to worry about what war drivers and hijackers are doing on the network, and whether the admins might be charged as accomplices. Recently, my brother visited Apple's Cupertino, Calif., headquarters to conduct some training sessions. On his way in, he noticed dozens of people sitting in their cars along the outer edges of the parking lot. He was informed that they were students enjoying free Internet access by piggybacking on Apple's corporate WLAN. If technologically savvy Apple has freeloaders riding on its WLAN, you probably will, too.

The truth is that most of us work in Dilbertesque offices that are already wired with perfectly good Ethernet connectivity. And 70% of corporate PCs are desktop models. Now, call me a cranky Yankee, but I don't see the upside of my IT department adding oodles of additional infrastructure just so that gadget-happy executives can reply to e-mail while in meetings. If my company is hell-bent on wasting its money on something, I'll take the TiVo.

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Wireless LANs: Resistance is futile

By Krissi Danielsson, Assistant Site Editor

In the early '90s, the enterprise wanted to get "wired." The Internet was fairly new, at least commercially speaking, and everyone raced to get connected -- first through phone lines, then through faster Ethernet cables. It was pointless to resist; the Internet quickly permeated daily life, and the Net became nearly as important as the telephone as a medium of daily communication.

Nowadays, it seems like enterprises are racing to get un-wired. Most IT workers now carry cell phones, freeing them from having to be at their desks to conduct important business calls. In addition, enterprises are increasingly deploying laptops instead of desktops to provide workers with increased mobility, according to Stamford, Conn.-based Meta Group.

It's only natural that the next step in this wireless evolution will be the adoption of the wireless Internet. I recently implemented a wireless network myself and, even in my humble four-computer home network, I found the wireless aspect to be a huge benefit. Gone are the days that I'd have to stay at my desk to work on the computer, or run ugly neon-colored cables through the house to connect computers in multiple rooms to a single DSL router. Gone are the worries that my 11-month-old daughter might get herself tied up in those cables during her many crawling expeditions. Now, on a nice day, I can even sit outside on the deck with my laptop, enjoying the afternoon sun. Now that I've tasted the freedom, I can't imagine going back.

While corporations may have somewhat different factors to consider, the fact remains that there are as many benefits to having a wireless network as there are to having a wireless phone. The evidence is stacking up that WLANs bring a striking ROI, and recent products show that the technology is indeed ready.

Just as cell phones increase worker productivity by allowing users to conduct business phone calls from anywhere, wireless LANs also increase worker freedom. A 2002 study by International Data Corp. predicted that the number of mobile, non-traveling workers -- workers who spend a significant amount of time away from their desks in meetings -- will grow 10% annually and reach 13 million by 2006. In the strictly wired office, workers have no access to their e-mail or other online resources during meetings.

In offices where workers need the flexibility to access network information from different locations, WLANs offer almost instant ROI. According to a study commissioned by Cisco and conducted by NOP World Technology, WLANs allow end users to be connected for more hours per day, as much as three and a half hours in some cases -- nearly half of the average workday. It's estimated that WLANs increase the average worker's productivity by about 27%.

The ability to collaborate improves dramatically as well. With a wireless LAN, workers can meet to brainstorm or compare notes wherever it's most convenient to do so, rather than having to gather around a spot with a network cable. In addition, these workers don't have to log off or reboot their PCs each time they move to a new room in the building. So dramatic are the improvements to worker productivity that, in many offices, IT workers are taking it upon themselves to purchase and install wireless access points.

For a company facing significant growth, the WLAN also offers significant cost savings. Network administrators can install wireless access points instead of worrying about running network wiring and cables in each new department or building.

The benefits of the WLAN are obvious, but many worry about security. While, yes, it's true that frequencies can be picked up and monitored by potential attackers, careful use of the latest security technology and protocols makes the WLAN nearly as secure as a wired LAN. Many companies frequently fail to implement even the most basic security policies on their networks, which can be a problem with WLANs. Yet lack of vigilance leaves even the wired network vulnerable to attack -- so a company shouldn't forgo a WLAN simply to avoid the costs of researching and implementing security measures.

One must also figure that if workers feel passionately enough about the productivity WLANs offer, they may go out and buy "rogue" access points themselves -- and it's far safer to formally implement WLAN technology and put security in the hands of a trained network administrator.

It's undeniable: Wireless is the way of the future. Once your workers get a taste of the possibilities, you'll find that resistance is futile, in the words of the Borg (of Star Trek). It's time to be assimilated.

So, who makes the better case? Let us know!

FOR MORE INFORMATION:

Browse our Topics on wireless in the enterprise.

Check out SearchSecurity.com's Face-off on hiring a hacker.

Dig deeper on Wireless LAN Implementation

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