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VPNs next big thing for wireless

VPNs are hot and getting hotter said a Nokia executive at VPNcon this week.

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- What's in store for virtual private networks?

Joe Gottlieb, vice president of Internet communications at Finnish mobile phone king Nokia Corp., tackled that question in an address at VPNcon this week.

While traditional technology bellwethers such as personal computer sales have experienced a significant slowdown in the last two years, virtual private networking (VPN) as a product category increased as a global market.

And this trend is expected to continue. Mr. Gottlieb cited IDC research firm's projections that sales for the VPN market in fiscal 2002 will reach roughly $3.5 billion. By 2005 that number is expected to increase by some two-thirds to well over $5 billion.

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What's the driving factor generating the sales? VPNs are increasingly attractive as a tactical solution to emerging business interests. Chief among these, according to the Nokia vice president, will be future wireless applications. These, he believes, will push VPN solutions more and more to the forefront of IT concerns as the global IT market becomes more and more unshackled from the desktop.

Growth curves for mobile Internet Protocol (IP) represent not merely the newest but far the steepest growth compared to growth curves for IP over traditional PCs, mobile voice and mobile IP data, said Gottlieb.

Looking forward to 2006, he said, smart handheld devices would emerge capable of achieving sustained roaming IP data transactions over the Internet from any location, automatically using the highest-bandwidth infrastructure available. This could be over wireless local area networks, such as today's 802.11x-based solutions, lower-bandwidth cellular technology such as General Packet Radio Services, or future standards as they emerge.

VPNs, in this scenario, would achieve nearly ubiquitous appeal as the arbiters of business data for anyone on the go. Today's carriers are thankful for mobile voice dollars, said Gottlieb, but will be still more thankful for mobile business data -- expected to reach three times the revenue opportunity that consumer data does.

Towards that end, carriers will increasingly deploy VPNs of increasing sophistication to address the necessary goals of scalability and security which they have learned are essential if they are to receive and retain corporate business dollars.

Within VPN hardware itself, Gottlieb said he expects a shift away from conventional custom integration via application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs) toward more dynamic underlying technology such as network processors. While ASICs can achieve tremendous performance, network processors can match that performance, and are at the same time far more flexible as deployed solutions, since their operating code can be updated on a flash basis -- crucial in the event holes in security are discovered, as they inevitably will be.

Additionally, future VPNs will be better capable of addressing quality of service issues, said Gottlieb. While today's offerings handle basic functionality and security, tomorrow's will be more intelligent about provisioning bandwidth on a case-by-case basis, fielding critical issues of emerging bottlenecks that are associated with wireless technologies more than their more predictable wired counterparts.

Gottlieb also said VPNs, which are often also used as ad hoc solutions to the problem of WLAN security, will see a similar use as Bluetooth products come to market and are rolled out in businesses.

This was perhaps the most speculative of Gottlieb's comments, given that Bluetooth has only a small fraction of the broadcasting range of WLAN technologies and therefore represents a much smaller sphere of opportunity for hackers.

For a hacker to drive a car within a few hundred feet of the nearest corporate WLAN base station -- often possible from a company parking lot -- may prove considerably easier than for the same hacker to position his car next to the cube whose user's Bluetooth data he wishes to intercept.

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