Three hot spots for wireless LAN buyers

Security and applications rank among the top concerns for customers fielding wireless local-area networks since the emergence of WLAN technology. But industry executives report that customer needs have become more sophisticated. A third aspect, voice enablement, is not yet a mainstream requirement, but organizations should consider including this feature so their networks are ready for future developments.

Here's a rundown of the leading considerations for WLANs:

Security: Moving up

Security for wireless devices has made strides, and customers appear more at ease with the technology.

"They are feeling much more comfortable with the fact that standards have been put in place," said Ann Sun, senior manager of wireless and mobility marketing at Cisco Systems.

She cited the new 802.11i standard, which incorporates the Advanced Encryption Standard. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers ratified it last year.

With fundamental security available for wireless access points and interface cards, customers have shifted their attention elsewhere. Sun and other industry executives say conversations with customers now focus on such features as intrusion detection and protection and real-time security monitoring for wireless networks. In general, customers look for wireless solutions that include management features as the number of access points continues to grow.

Vendors are responding with products that incorporate various security and management capabilities. For example, Cisco has released some new products since its acquisition of Airespace, a wireless switch vendor, in January. Those products include the 2000 Series, 4100 Series and 4400 Series Wireless LAN Controllers that offer 802.11i Wi-Fi Protected Access 2, intrusion prevention and location technology. The latter feature locates rogue access points.

Meanwhile, 3Com launched a switch-based wireless strategy last year with the aim of offloading security and management features from access points to switches. The company's offerings include the 3Com Wireless LAN Controller WX4400 with Wireless Switch Manager software.

The objective is to boost security and management by centrally controlling WLANs.

"Access points are no longer autonomous devices," said Steve Parker, enterprise wireless product line manager at 3Com.

Adding centralized security and management also adds costs to a WLAN deployment. For example, Cisco's entry-level 4400 Series Wireless LAN Controller — the model 4402-12, which supports 12 access points — costs $9,995. The list price for 3Com's WX4400 is $12,999 for a device that manages 24 access points. It can be expanded to support up to 96 access points.

Applications: Beyond the basics

For organizations that are already running wireless networks, applications have become a key point of interest.

Guest services technology has become an application that organizations typically layer on top of their wireless infrastructure.

"They can extend networking service to guests...[such as] on-site contractors," Sun said.

A newer application, however, is location services. They track the location of 802.11 devices and gear bearing 802.11 active radio frequency identification tags. The technology can be used to locate medical equipment within a hospital, for example.

In May, Cisco unveiled its Cisco 2700 Series Wireless Location Appliance, which Sun said can keep track of up to 1,500 802.11 devices. The product costs $14,995 and is another offshoot of Cisco's Airespace acquisition.

Location-aware products are also available in software form. Newbury Networks, for example, offers location-based management and security solutions. Pricing for the company's WiFi Watchdog starts at about $15,000. Ekahau makes location software and wireless tags that can be attached to objects or carried by people.

Voice: Preparing for the future

Voice-over-WLAN technology might not be widespread today, but industry watchers believe it represents a logical progression.

Parker said 3Com sees frequent requests for voice-enabled WLAN products. "I think people want to 'future-proof' their wireless deployments, even though they may not have immediate plans to deploy" voice over WLAN, he said.

3Com's and Cisco's products support wireless IP telephony. In addition, Proxim's ORiNOCO Switching System supports voice and data traffic across WLANs.

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