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Wi-Fi Essentials

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Is it me, or does it seem there’s a new techno buzzword being thrown around every other day? Keeping up with XML this, PDA that and implementing a WLAN to work with both is almost a fulltime job – in terminology alone. Unfortunately, the new and exciting world of “wireless” is no exception. Let’s see if we can shed just a bit of light on the buzz, the facts and what it all means to you.

In short, Wi-Fi is the user-friendly term for the family of 802.11 specs from IEEE. The term Wi-Fi was created by, and is marketed by, an organization of vendors, suppliers and industry representatives called the Wi-Fi Alliance. Their mission is to educate, demystify and market the 802.11 products and standards. More specifically, the goal of the Alliance is to, “enhance the user experience through product interoperability.” This is to say they have a “Wi-Fi Certified” program for testing products and ensuring their compatibility with other Wi-Fi labeled gear.

So, if Wi-Fi equals 802.11, what’s with all this b’, a” and g” stuff you ask? It’s simple really these are the different flavors of Wi-Fi, each with their own benefits and capabilities.

First came 802.11b. It is, by far, the most widely deployed Wi-Fi gear and may be considered the standard, at least for today. Without going into all the technical details, 802.11b can run as fast as 11Mbs and operates in the 2.4 GHz range. The pros of 802.11b is that it is widely deployed (it’s probably what your local coffee house or library uses), uses less power (so it’s often built into handheld devices) and has greater range because it passes through walls and floors easier. The cons are that it’s considered slow in comparison to other standards, and it operates at the same frequency as a lot of cordless phones and microwave ovens, so there it a greater potential for interference.

Next came 802.11a which is faster at 54 Mbs and operates in the 5GHz range. Because of it’s higher frequency, 802.11a is generally thought to run into less interference, but it doesn’t have the same range as 802.11b for the same reason.

More recently we’ve been introduced to 802.11g which works at the same frequency as 802.11b, but at faster rates – up to 54 Mbs. So some say, 802.11g is the best of both worlds – and when you consider it’s backwards compatible with 802.11b, it’s hard to argue.

So which is best for you? It’s not always a simple answer but the question has become less of an issue in recent months with the introduction of “dual-band” gear. This equipment runs in the a/b or a/b/g space to allow maximum return on investment and flexibility for future migrations.

Regardless of where you end up in this Wi-Fi alphabet soup, here are a few issues to consider when making your selection

Existing Network. If you are a home or small business user with a simple DSL/Cable line and wish to implement Wi-Fi from day one, you will probably benefit from a single, multi-functional device. These devices combine a Wi-Fi Access Point, a Router and a Switch all into a single unit for somewhere in the neighborhood of $100. However, if you are a larger enterprise in a larger building with many users, you will most likely need to deploy multiple Access Points, as they do not provide router, switching or security functions. In short – these users just need the wireless function. Before buying gear, think about what you have and do your homework to buy the right products.

Physical Environment. Wi-Fi only works if the signal can get from device to device without a lot of interference. Wi-Fi doesn’t really mind drywall and insulation, but it hates concrete and steel. Think about your physical surroundings and consider a professional site assessment before spending a lot on gear that may or may not work in your environment.

Users and Usage. Estimating the number of Wi-Fi users is important, but considering what these users will be doing with their connection is often more important. Will they be casual users for e-mail and surfing, or will they be doing extensive printing, media streams or file-sharing? These factors play an important role when determining the number of Access Points, whether a, b or g are most appropriate and how to manage your environment.

Support and Longevity. Wouldn’t it be perfect if you could forecast the future and only buy gear that will support the next, unknown upgrade, will not fail or burn out, will be widely supported by the industry and will provide years and years of great technical support? Well, while it may be a bit of guess work, this should be one of your goals. Consider sticking with a major name with a decent support process – it will pay dividends in the upcoming years!

Actual Performance. It’s a general consensus in the industry that Wi-Fi gear:

  • Never goes as fast as they say it does – figure half.
  • Never goes as far as they say it does – again figure half.
  • Never is as easy to setup as they say it will be.
  • Don’t buy gear based on the numbers printed on the box or in marketing literature. There is a wealth of information on the Web regarding reviews, real performance statistics, user experiences (even with tech support) and unknown or unadvertised limitations. Read up, learn from other users and know what you’re buying.

    Security. Arguably one of the hottest topics when considering Wi-Fi gear. Security was once considered a Wi-Fi oxymoron. Without over simplifying a very complex, detailed and somewhat confusing topic, here are the basics

    WEP, the first generation security mechanism built into Wi-Fi is generally considered faulty, unsecured and probably inappropriate for all but the most basic and risk-tolerant environments.

    IEEE is working on 802.11i with “industrial strength” security that will be appropriate for home users and the enterprise alike. The specification has not yet been ratified and products conforming to the spec are still a ways out.

    In the meantime, the Wi-Fi Alliance has introduced WPA (Wi-Fi Protected Access). WPA is a subset of the security technologies expected in 802.11i, is here today, is being widely deployed in Wi-Fi gear and is considered very secure in the security market. In short, make sure your gear (all your gear) support WPA and that WPA is turned on and configured correctly. Even when 802.11i is unveiled, WPA will most likely provide appropriate security safeguards for the vast majority of business for the foreseeable future.

    In summary, it’s clear that Wi-Fi has made significant headway in recent years and is now ready for prime-time! Do your homework and be careful that the gear you purchase is both appropriate for your business needs today and what you may be considering in the foreseeable future. Most importantly, make sure the gear you purchase provides appropriate security safeguards with the use of WPA and that you actually turn these safeguards on and configure them correctly!

    For more information on Wi-Fi or any of the other Networking services offered by ICS Advantage email info@icsadvantage.com or visit www.icsadvantage.com/networking.asp

    Neil Witek, PMP, CISA is a Project Manager with ICS Advantage; a member of the Sikich Group. In this role, Neil is responsible for the coordination of design, planning, implementation and testing efforts on ICSs most complex engagements. Neil’s primary focus is on unique projects regarding IT security and control including local government, e-commerce and secure networking. As a member of the Sikich Group, Neil provides IT audit services for Sikich-Gardner clients throughout northern Illinois. These services leverage his hands-on experience accumulated as a 14-year veteran of IT professional services.

    Wi-Fi Essentials
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    About Neil Witek
    Neil Witek, PMP, CISA is a Project Manager with ICS Advantage; a member of the Sikich Group. In this role, Neil is responsible for the coordination of design, planning, implementation and testing efforts on ICSs most complex engagements. Neil's primary focus is on unique projects regarding IT security and control including local government, e-commerce and secure networking. As a member of the Sikich Group, Neil provides IT audit services for Sikich-Gardner clients throughout northern Illinois. These services leverage his hands-on experience accumulated as a 14-year veteran of IT professional services. WebProNews Writer
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