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Bad Packets: WLAN in, WEP out

802.11b-based wireless LANs (WLANs) haven't exactly been getting good press in recent months.

E-mail Wes Simonds

According to a new study, 802.11b-based wireless LANs (WLANs) can make your hair fall out, they leave a filthy residue, they don't dress well, they hit your parked car and don't leave a note, they're for Voldemort and against Harry Potter, they shower infrequently, they say mean things about your mother, they cheat on their taxes, and there's excellent reason to believe they made your stocks drop in 2000.

Well, not really. But you might not be surprised to read such things; given the recent negative publicity the protocol has received.

As I've noted before, Gartner Group has developed the concept of a time period known as the Trough of Disillusionment (tm) on its Hype Chart, during which well-meaning but largely uninformed journalists hammer savagely away at a naive and unsuspecting technology as it tries to make its fledgling way into a harsh world. Gartner says WLANs are largely past the Trough of Disillusionment and well on their way towards the sunlit world of the Plateau of Productivity.

Really? You wouldn't think it to read articles in the technology media in the last two months.

I've seen epic sagas of white-hat hackers trolling through corporate LANs at will from cars sitting in parking lots, driving through Silicon Valley peeking into mission-critical servers, yawning as they rifle through private e-mail, smirking as they surreptitiously watch the guy in Accounting flirt with the girl in Marketing via instant messaging.

I've seen paragraphs that begin like this: "Surprisingly, though, network security experts do not recommend completely dismantling all wireless LANs in your company."

Talk about damning with faint praise! Let's take a quick look at the real issues here.

Virtually all the negative publicity has centered on WEP, the built-in baseline security protocol that's rolled into the 802.11b protocol. WEP, go the reports, is insecure and can be compromised by (a) hackers, (b) undergraduate students at Rice University in Houston, (c) anyone with a copy of the recently released wireless sniffing application AirSnort and a laptop running Linux, and probably (d) your not particularly intelligent second cousin Stuart who was a fan of hair bands in the eighties and cannot pronounce the letter W properly.

What they tend not to say is that WEP is totally disabled by default in virtually all shipping WLAN hardware, that WLAN vendors have never particularly had confidence in WEP and have assumed security would be deployed atop basic WLAN functionality by customers, and that, either because they simply don't know it's disabled or because it inhibits raw throughput by a typical ratio of about 50%, network administrators often leave WEP disabled.

These articles don't say that WEP and WLANs are hardly married to each other, that proprietary value-added security is and has been available from multiple WLAN vendors (albeit in a way that leaves WLAN hardware cross-vendor-incompatible), and that in fact WLAN companies and the IEEE are working aggressively towards revising and improving common security standards as fast as possible.

They often don't say that you, as a network administrator, can already virtually eliminate all these security issues in a wide variety of ways -- that you can, for instance, deploy your wireless access points outside your firewall and in conjunction with any previously installed virtual private network (VPN) solutions, thus acquiring the vastly superior and time-tested VPN security and encryption for all wireless transactions by forcing would-be WLAN clients to authenticate themselves first.

But I'm saying it, because it's increasingly clear that wireless LANs are here to stay.

The sheer convenience and cool-factor appeal of the technology has in many cases completely charmed users and administrators alike, and as speeds rapidly ramp up over the course of the next year into Fast Ethernet-competitive realms -- think five to ten times the typical 11 Mbit/sec. performance of today's 802.11b-based standards -- this will become more and more the situation.

According to a report by Allied Business Intelligence (ABI) titled "Wireless LANs: Markets, Equipment Revenue, Standards and Vendors", annual revenue generated from wireless LAN equipment is expected to rise to $4.5 billion in 2006. In 1999 -- effectively speaking, the year the WLAN blip hit the network administration radar -- 1.4 million wireless LAN nodes shipped worldwide, but that total more than tripled inside a year to 4.9 million in 2000. Five years from now, ABI expects this number to reach 55.9 million.

That's an order of magnitude higher, folks.

Sage Research, similarly, has noted in a recent report that about a third of US enterprises have deployed wireless LANs, and that in two short years a solid 50% of today's leading corporations will use wireless LANs as commonly as they use wired LANs.

Bottom line: WEP is finished. Long live WLANs.

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