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Experts call management Wi-Fi's biggest challenge

Forget security. When it comes to implementing Wi-Fi, experts explain why management is the toughest challenge.

LAS VEGAS -- Any organization can implement a wireless LAN, but it's the unique characteristics of over-the-air data transmission that make management the true challenge.

While progress is being made, according to experts who spoke at Interop 2005, numerous issues contribute to the burden that comes with managing a wireless network.

Craig Mathias, principal with Ashland-Mass.-based wireless consultancy Farpoint Group, told attendees that management is not only the most important topic in the wireless LAN (WLAN) realm, but it's also the No. 1 roadblock thwarting enterprises from going wireless.

"There are so many different elements of managing a wired network," Mathias said. "You add the wireless component, and it gets even more complex and technical."

Rich Mironov, vice president of marketing for Sunnyvale, Calif.-based AirMagnet Inc., said his firm and other Wi-Fi management vendors have it tough because they must master a myriad of functions, including RF supervision, integration with wired networks and interoperability with other vendors' management products.

"If you want to compete in the [WLAN] switch market, there are a lot of things you have to do," Mironov said, as opposed to the wireless security market, where vendors' primary focus is on adapting quickly to security threats. "Nobody wants to pull out Tivoli or Unicenter just because they put wireless in."

Merwyn Andrade, chief technical officer with Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Wi-Fi switch maker Aruba Wireless Networks, said organizations often make WLAN management more difficult by implementing ad hoc access points and virtual LANs, which are tough to keep track of.

Andrade said radio frequency resource management is also important as organizations need to ensure that a signal reaches all key areas and that downtime doesn't adversely affect users. He added that Wi-Fi client management is an "unresolved problem" because clients often exhibit irregular behavior when they move to and from the boundaries of the corporate network.

Another underestimated issue is access management, said Jeff Smith, director of product management for Westminster, Colo.-based Wi-Fi management vendor Roving Planet Inc. He said it takes a significant effort to ensure that various user groups have access to the resources they need when they need them, without opening security holes in the network.

"Capital expenditures are really a small piece of the [WLAN] cost equation," Smith said. "It's really the cost of management that gets you."

Smith said it's easy to forget that not only is there no static point in a wireless network where all data can be monitored, but administrators also lose the ability to trace a port to find the location of a device.

"You have to go by identity, and traditional management systems were never meant to manage networks based on identity," he said.

For more information

Check out our Topics on wireless network management.

Learn why Interop experts say Wi-Fi security is still a struggle.

Read more articles written by News Editor Eric B. Parizo.

Not surprisingly, the vendors advocated broad Wi-Fi management packages to cut costs and ease the burden on network admins. Smith said such systems can automate many management functions -- including policy enforcement, data collection, analysis and reporting -- so that organizations can manage the airwaves based on business processes and ease future network planning and growth.

However, Mathias questioned whether a company can find all the Wi-Fi management tools it needs in a single package. Mironov said that while it makes sense to consolidate network management functions when possible, a Wi-Fi-specific system is needed to keep tabs on devices at the edge of the network.

Andrade agreed, saying there are "unique Layer 1-3 issues that affect wireless only," and that means a wired network management system with an RF add-on component isn't sufficient.

Attendee James Biekkola, information technology specialist for Los Angeles County, said management is a major issue as his organization helps the county's various agencies roll out a wireless network that will be used by 86,000 employees and several diverse applications.

Biekkola said his IT services group is faced with not only providing consistent coverage, keeping the network secure and enforcing policy, but also enabling different groups to have various degrees of control over their own infrastructure segments.

"We're finding that one [management] solution doesn't necessarily fit all our applications," Biekkola said.

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