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Wireless LANs move from toys to tools

Wireless local area networks are no longer a curiosity in the enterprise. An analyst at the Burton Group's Catalyst conference said the technology has advanced to the point where wireless LANs have surmounted even their greatest shortcoming: security.

SAN FRANCISCO -- During a presentation at the Burton Group Catalyst Conference 2003, Burton Group senior analyst Mike Disabato said that wireless LAN technology has improved dramatically but that security still remains a concern for many companies.

Wireless local area networks have progressed from the toy stage to the tool stage, Disabato said during a presentation. Vendors are making wireless technology that is now sophisticated enough to meet the security and management requirements of enterprises.

Security has advanced beyond the flawed Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP) protocol to a new standard called Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA), which is in the process of being certified by the Wi-Fi Alliance, the industry's interoperability watchdog group. This new protocol fixes many of the problems with WEP and, when combined with authentication, will make wireless LANs secure enough for many enterprises, Disabato said.

Nonetheless, some attending the conference said their companies still have security concerns about using wireless technology. Rick Nurkka, a senior network analyst with Morris Township, N.J.-based electronics and aerospace company Honeywell International Inc., said Wi-Fi use is discouraged at his company. Because of problems with WEP, the company uses a virtual private network (VPN) to give employees wireless access. The VPN, however, is expensive to deploy, making the wireless network a less cost-effective tool, he said.

Another attendee at the show, Andy Haywood, a network architect with British Petroleum in London, said his company has a limited Wi-Fi network, but because of security concerns, the organization keeps its Wi-Fi network separate from its internal network and only allows wireless Internet access.

However, the availability of products with WPA security is good news for McDonald's Corp., the Oak Brook, Ill.-based fast food chain. The company deployed a Wi-Fi network at its headquarters two years ago. The security available at the time, WEP, has proved to be insufficient. The company is upgrading to WPA, but it will also have to replace some hardware to make the switch, said Chuck Rush, McDonald's global infrastructure manager.

Disabato also touted a growing trend of adding voice to wireless networks. This market is emerging, he said, and in the future, voice over Wi-Fi will be more common. But for Rush and others, that is not a realistic option yet. "We're thinking about that, but we have a way to go before adopting it," Haywood said.

Despite the hesitancy among many users, most of the attendees at the session had some sort of wireless network at their businesses. With the advent of switched wireless networks, increased radio frequency (RF) management abilities and better security, wireless LANs can become a more integrated part of those businesses, Disabato said.

But like any technology, wireless is changing and complex. BP's Haywood said that, before he puts more effort into building out his own network, he wants to see if there is a way to work with carriers to outsource the service. That would make Wi-Fi much simpler, he said.


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