A standards-based security fix in the wings

While switches are emerging to provide one answer to the wireless local-area network (WLAN) security problem, industry leaders have been working on a separate standards-based solution.

The Wi-Fi Alliance, a consortium for 802.11 interoperability standards and testing, has completed the first draft of the 802.11i standard for comprehensive security in enterprise WLANs. It includes such security measures as authentication, session management and Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) technology.

"There is still work to be done to support legacy hardware in wireless environments," said Vipin Jain, vice president and general manager of LAN access business at Extreme Networks Inc. "It will be completed in 2004."

Defense Department officials have keen interest in WLAN security development. "Wireless LAN technology is extremely useful," said Richard Hale, chief information assurance executive at the Defense Information Systems Agency. "The DOD remains concerned about security, but we are very much encouraged by 802.11i."

Meanwhile, until 802.11i is ready and used to build products that are ready to be shipped to customers, the Wi-Fi Alliance has plugged security holes in the current WLAN security standard called Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP) with an interim solution dubbed Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA). WPA replaces WEP's static encryption key with a dynamic one and provides a mechanism for user authentication.

"WPA will be a mandatory part of Wi-Fi Alliance testing and certification by August 2003," said Ron Seide, product line manager of Cisco Systems Inc.'s Wireless Networking Business Unit. The company has been doing a brisk business in wireless access points, according to market research firm In-Stat/MDR, but does not offer a WLAN switch.

Wireless switch vendors await 802.11i with AES encryption, but supporting it will require some engineering work. "In WPA, the core algorithm is still the same as it is in WEP," said Jay Pitcher, senior systems engineer with Symbol Technologies Inc. "Why are we trying to fix WEP? Why not go directly to AES? The problem is that WEP is baked into the hardware for performance. When we move to 802.11i, we'll have to have AES in the hardware."

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