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Wireless LANs: Cheap is not synonymous with simple

New Meta Group research finds that the market for wireless local area networks is growing steadily, thanks in part to the low costs of these systems.

A study recently released by Meta Group found that the wireless local area network market is growing steadily, thanks in part to the low costs of these systems, but just because wireless LANs are cheap doesn't mean they are simple.

Chris Kozup, a senior research analyst with the Meta Group, a Stamford, Conn., research firm, found in a recent study that the wireless LAN market, currently valued at $1.5 billion, is expected to grow 30% a year.

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Because of the market growth and the attention wireless gets from the media, wireless technology is often deployed due to pressure from employees rather than from directives from above. This means that, at the very least, companies should develop wireless policies, Kozup said. That way IT managers can ensure that when they do move toward wireless they understand security issues and how best to implement the technology to meet business needs, Kozup said.

The growth rate of the wireless LAN market is exceptional given the slow economy. In part, wireless systems are attractive to companies on tight budgets because they are relatively inexpensive, Kozup said. Access points cost just hundreds of dollars, as do devices. Wireless LAN cards for laptops are now becoming a standard feature.

But, he said, there are often hidden costs to wireless deployments. Security is the most expensive issue, and the one often overlooked by companies. "I don't think enterprises always look at the whole picture when they are making decisions about wireless," Kozup said.

It is important that businesses buy enterprise-class access points. Some access points for the home market lack the features that many enterprises rely on. For example, Kozup said, access points from companies that focus on the home market may support wireless encryption protocol (WEP), but that is not enough for a business. Crackers can download tools from the Internet that can crack even 128-bit WEP. At a minimum, what's needed to make the system more secure is authentication, which is not supported by many of the access points that target the home user, Kozup said.

While there are many security products on the market from third-party vendors like Fort Lee, N.J.-based ReefEdge Inc. and Burlington, Mass.-based BlueSocket Inc., Kozup said that these third-party systems may not always be the best choice. Wireless system vendors such as Cisco Systems Inc. of San Jose, Calif., and Holtsville, N.Y.-based Symbol Technologies Inc. have their own security solutions. Not all third-party wireless security products integrate well with all the enterprise-class wireless systems, Kozup said.

IT professionals need to be as smart about implementing these relatively inexpensive wireless LAN systems as they would about deploying something as costly and complex as voice over Internet protocol. If they are not, Kozup said, wireless may turn out to more expensive than they ever thought.

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