November 24, 2003
By Galen Gruman, editorial director, IT Wireless
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Solving the Wireless LAN Management Challenge

As wireless LANs gain wider adoption and begin to be used in large deployments, rather than just in a conference room or small branch office, IT managers are discovering that the tools to manage them are nowhere near the same level of maturity as management tools are for the wired LAN. Many access points, gateways, routers, and clients require manual configuration, come with unique management tools that work with only one or two types of devices, provide limited capabilities, or otherwise require separate management.

The University of Wyoming encountered this dilemma as it deployed 80 access points throughout the campus to ensure that students and faculty had wireless access to both university systems and the public Internet. Justin Borthwick, the campus's systems programmer for the wireless network, was configuring access accounts for every new student each semester, an overwhelming job that he could not continue to manage as the popularity of wireless access increased among the 12,000 students and 2,500 faculty members. "When wireless first came out, it was a pain in the butt to manage because you had to manage each device manually," he recalls.

Administration staff was overwhelmed trying to match wireless access requests with student records, so many staff members simply stopped checking, permitting access by nonstudents who wanted free Internet access. And the manual approach wouldn't permit the issuance of temporary access to conference facility visitors, something Borthwick wanted to offer because the university is a popular conference site. Although not too concerned about unauthorized access to university systems Borthwick is implementing virtual private networks (VPNs) for such access, and he has set up the wireless LAN as a separate, public segment he was concerned about bandwidth and user management.

Borthwick also could not monitor usage and traffic levels at each access point to identify choke points and underused resources in the three-year-old network. Although Cisco Systems provided a monitoring tool with the wireless network infrastructure on which the university had standardized, it did not provide sufficient management capabilities. "The software lets you see only how many people are logged in, but it doesn't show how many people at any given time are at any access point." So the university began using wireless LAN management software from Roving Planet that let it track usage at each access point from a central location. "We discovered that three library access points were not used at all, so we moved them elsewhere." With the software, the student account registration was also greatly simplified: "I created two interfaces, and I was done." The effort did require changing the access points' firmware to work with the Roving Planet software, as well as changing some of the wireless VPN architecture to work under Roving Planet's assumptions, but it took Borthwick just two months to reconfigure the system so it could be managed easily.

The cost was not expensive: about $20,000, which Borthwick figures accounts for 5% to 10% of the wireless LAN's total costs.

Borthwick also needed the wireless LAN management tool to monitor which users were where and what systems they were accessing, both to help identify unauthorized users and to identify bandwidth hogs and other troublesome usage sources. The software also lets him update each access point's settings, such as registering MAC addresses, from a central location. "With [Cisco's] LEAP, I had to register every MAC address manually, which required way too much labor." Today, with third-party tools, "we're seeing more and more options, such as Wavelink to manage access points," he notes. Borthwick is also moving away from MAC address authentication, which is "troublesome to manage," in favor of more modern wireless security mechanisms.

Warren Wilson, an analyst at Summit Strategies, says that the University of Wyoming's experience is not unique. "It's a daunting task" to put together wireless management systems, he says. Among the areas that need management are security (signal range and scope, user authentication and intrusion detection, and access validation), hardware updating (such as updating policies, radio channels, and hardware IDs), and performance monitoring and optimization (such as identifying site gaps, rerouting traffic to reduce congestion, and compensating for transient interference).

Wilson says the reason for the relative dearth of wireless LAN management tools is due to the fact that the wireless market is relatively small. That also explains why it tends to be smaller vendors such as Wavelink, Cognio, and Roving Planet that offer such solutions, as well as specialty integrators such as WhereNet. While some run as plug-ins for Computer Associates' Unicenter or Hewlett-Packard's OpenView, most are separate utilities, he says. Wilson notes that larger consulting firms, such as IBM Global Services and Hewlett-Packard Services, also can put together wireless LAN management packages.

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The Latest in Wireless Products and Tech

Broadcom has announced InConcert, a new technology designed to let wireless devices collaboratively coexist within the same radio frequency. InConcert technology provides products enabled with Broadcom Bluetooth and Wi-Fi chips the ability to intelligently share the 2.4GHz frequency range, synchronizing transmissions to maximize throughput and performance for both standards. InConcert will begin shipping in Broadcom's Bluetooth and wireless LAN products starting early next year.

IBM is adding support for AT&T Wireless's high-speed Enhanced Data for GSM Evolution (EDGE) cellular data network to its WebSphere Everyplace Connection Manager, which it will also include on IBM ThinkPad notebooks. Also, IBM's stack of middleware software, WebSphere Everyplace Connection Manager, WebSphere Everyplace Access, and DB2 database software will support Sharp's Zaurus PDA for Enterprises in a Linux-based mobile solution that makes it easier for businesses to extend enterprise applications to mobile workers.

The Federal Communications Commission has approved making 255MHz of spectrum available for unlicensed services in a high-frequency band that is partially used by the U.S. military. Already about 300MHz was available in the 5GHz band for such services, including 802.11a wireless signals.

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From our editors

A subscriber exclusive! IT Wireless's Fall 2003 Essential Products Guide is now available to subscribers. The 19-page PDF file contains a listing of key vendors and service providers, with summaries of their offerings and contact information. Categories include wireless network and client hardware, network and client software, and IT services. Download the directory now!

The Latest in the Wireless Marketplace

A new form of wireless, known as 802.16a after the IEEE standard that defines it and as WiMax by a vendor consortium, should gain rapid deployment in 2004 once compatible equipment is released next year, predicts market analysis firm ABI. The 802.16a standard defines broadband, wide-area wireless networks that can cover large areas such as sections of cities. ABI says it expects broadband wireless equipment sales to surpass $1.5 billion by 2008, in large part due to the new WiMax standard, which was approved in January.

Sales of 802.20 gear will also contribute to the total projected revenue, but the majority of it will be WiMax, says Ed Rerisi, ABI's director of research. "The 802.20 equipment will just be coming online then." The 802.20 standard, which is still in the very early stages, focuses on mobile broadband, although it too encompasses fixed wireless. It is seen as a potential competitor to 802.16, especially to the upcoming 802.16e amendment for mobile broadband.

In the meantime, WiMax deployments will start in earnest in 2004, with carriers initially targeting areas where there is no DSL or cable modem service. "At least initially, the markets that the operators will likely target will be those that aren't as price-sensitive," Rerisi says.

The second part of the initial rollout will target small and medium businesses. With some broadband wireless providers charging roughly half of what a traditional T1 line would cost, businesses may well be willing to spend a premium on the gear to save on the service, Rerisi suggests.

As more equipment comes out and prices start to come down, operators will start to expand into more price-sensitive markets. Rerisi says 802.16 modem prices would probably need to hit the $200 to $250 price range for mass adoption on the consumer side. Modems are expected to cost $400 to $500 when they start shipping next year.

The residential market will generate the highest number of subscribers, although not necessarily the most revenue, he says. And Rerisi doesn't believe there's much of a market for the use of 802.16 as wireless backhaul. "The bandwidth requirements there are pretty high, so it's not the most cost-effective solution," he says.


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