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But 'Gi-Fi' pointless without robust security

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Among the factors that have held back enterprise uptake of wireless LANs outside greenfield sites have been security fears and lack of performance compared to wireline Ethernet. The past week has brought little reassurance on the first point, but has highlighted developments pointing to the creation of Gigabit Wi-Fi.

A few days after experts exposed vulnerabilities in the WPA WLAN security standard, more question marks were raised over Wi-Fi's openness to attack.

Lack of WLAN security

Two surveys predicted dire consequences if UK corporations do not take a stricter approach to wireless security, while a study by Federal Computer Week found that US government civilian and defense systems are "exceedingly vulnerable" to hacking since they introduce wireless networking, since much data on these links is unencrypted or access points are inadequately protected.

All this is creating something of a resurgence of the security panics that plagued corporate WLAN adoption last year, and which equipment makers had hoped would be lulled by the appearance of the WPA interim security standard from the Wi-Fi Alliance, and the recent ratification of the full blown IEEE 802.11i specification, which supports features such as AES authentication.

Of course, the security specialists benefit from renewed fears about Wi-Fi's vulnerability, and two of them, SonicWall and Red-M, are behind the new surveys of UK companies. The SonicWall report found that 70 per cent of UK organizations are using wireless connectivity or planning to do so soon, but one-third of these admitted that they would have no way of detecting a security breach on their WLANs.

The study involved interviews with directors and senior IT managers at more than 400 businesses, half of them with more than 1,000 PCs and the rest in the small to medium sector. Around half had already deployed WLANs while a further 20 per cent were considering implementing it in the coming 12 months. Drivers for adoption were flexibility (64 per cent).

Security remains the single biggest fear factor. More than three quarters (77 per cent) of firms cited it as a key concern, along with network management (30 per cent) and cost (24 per cent). Only 16 per cent failed to see any benefit from wireless, compared with more than 30 per cent in a similar survey published a year ago.

About 70 per cent of firms have deployed their WLAN in a secure firewall zone but are still using the old WEP protocol, which does not protect the application layer effectively, so better encryption is urgently needed.

More than 80 per cent of those with WLANs said they enforced security policies governing usage yet less than half (44 per cent) had ever had their wireless networks audited. When asked how they would know if they was a breach of security on the WLAN just 16 per cent could answer the question and 38 per cent of those said they would have no idea.

In a survey of 81 large companies, Red-M found that 68 per cent of them demonstrated "an alarming lack of urgency in securing computer networks against wireless risks".

CEO Karl Feilder said: "I'm beginning to believe that it will take a few catastrophic events to jolt business leaders into action. Because they can't physically see the threat they believe it doesn't exist, yet the threat is much bigger than most companies realize."

Of the companies surveyed, 45 per cent mistakenly believed that their existing security measures would protect them against wireless intrusion, while 23 per cent of them believed that simply declaring their offices wireless-free zones was effective. "That's like saying that because stealing is a crime we don't need to lock our buildings at night," said Feilder.

US federal systems

Over the Atlantic, Federal Computer Week has pointed to many points of vulnerability in US government systems. As well as common failings such as unencrypted data, use of WEP instead of WPA or 802.11i, and access points that are allowed to broadcast signals widely, the study identifies contractors on civilian and defense projects as the weakest link.

Systems integrators such as Computer Sciences (CSC), which has a huge contract with the National Security Agency, were found by the investigation to operate systems with "significant and troubling security vulnerabilities" that do not comply with the guidelines issued by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in November 2002.

The FCW team was able to detect network traffic on the Pentagon's private WLLAN from a range of more than 1,000 yards from highways on three sides of the Pentagon building. And at CSC's federal division's base in Virginia, FCW reporters discovered five rogue wireless access points, and said the whole system could have been crippled with a denial of service attack within minutes.

Extricom

All this throws fresh doubts over enterprise WLANs just when some pioneers are seeking to boost their data rates to match those of Ethernet. Fresh from raising new funding, Israeli start-up Extricom is one of those promising a 1Gbps Wi-Fi.

The company claims that its Interference Free Architecture triples the available channels and the bandwidth of 802.11a, 802.11b, and 802.11g taking 'b' to 99Mbps and the others to 1Gbps. CEO Gideon Rottem says the key to achieving these speeds is solving the problem of co-channel interference.

It is focusing on the enterprise market, as are other proponents of superfast Wi-Fi (or Gi-Fi, as it is inevitably being labelled). Extricom says its architecture, backed by 10 patents, eliminates coverage and capacity limitations (and the need for expensive cell planning and site surveys) through use of per-packet adaptive techniques and channel re-use. The per-packet adaptive architecture adapts to its RF environment for each packet sent across the wireless network, enabling frequency reuse of each 802.11 channel, multiplying the aggregate capacity by up to 60 times.

The company has developed a switch and access point with specialized software algorithms, which will be available in the first quarter of 2005. The APs are ultra-thin, with no radio or processor, and can be deployed in very dense configurations to boost throughput and to support zero hand-off time between APs. This is an approach that is also being studied by switchmakers such as Aruba.

Although they will work with third party switches, they have to be combined with the Extricom switch to achieve the maximum speeds. A common complaint against Wi-Fi hardware makers is that, while technically conforming to 802.11 standards in terms of interoperability, they create -standards-plus' features that lock users into their systems. In the case of 1Gbps Wi-Fi, this lock-in could be permanent, since there are no firm plans for the IEEE to develop a standard for this speed.

Rather than taking Cisco on head-to-head, Extricom is pitching itself as an OEM offering for vendors already in the market and looking to make superior RF performance a core feature of their next-generation products.

This has certainly been a key focus for switchmakers recently, with experiments with wireless grid (Aruba), MIMO smart antennas (Airespace) and advanced routing algorithms (Chantry) among the approaches. There will be more start-ups too - Stellaris Networks, also from Israel, is working on technology similar to Extricom's, although it remains in stealth mode for now.

NewLans

Another start-up targeting this space is NewLans, details of whose approach are as hazy as those of Extricom's. NewLans was set up by serial entrepreneur Dev Gupta, who has already presented his technology to the IEEE and hopes for a standards taskgroup to be set up soon.

Two trends are making talk of Gigabit Wi-Fi - also known as Gi-Fi or Wireless Gigabit to the Desktop (wGTTD) - more than just interesting speculation. First, WLan companies claim that enterprises are becoming increasingly comfortable with the idea of replacing wired Lans with wireless, rather than just supplementing them, but they will demand that Wi-Fi keeps pace with Ethernet speed advances. Gigabit Ethernet to the desktop is starting to be widely adopted.

Second, in the US, the Federal Communications Commission has decided to open up the 56GHz band for possible high speed WLAN usage, which will stimulate adoption of wireless for intensive applications such as video. Only with such infrastructure options will an entirely wireless enterprise become a possibility.

Gupta himself is mainly looking to the enterprise for Gi-Fi uptake and told US journalists that he hoped to market the idea to Cisco customers. Given that several of his past ventures have been acquired by the networking giant, he may also be hoping to market his company to Cisco itself. Certainly, Gi-Fi is the type of technology that could attract the market leader, whose real power lies in enterprise backbones and whose business in that area could be cannibalized by a major shift to wireless.

For now, there are very few technical details revealed about how speeds of 1-2Gbps will be achieved over Wi-Fi at a time when most vendors believe that the protocol is being stretched to its limit by the current 802.11n project to achieve 108Mbps. Such suppliers are looking to WiMAX to provide the throughput and reliability upgrades as customers start to demand faster wireless.

Copyright © 2004, Wireless Watch

Wireless Watch is published by Rethink Research, a London-based IT publishing and consulting firm. This weekly newsletter delivers in-depth analysis and market research of mobile and wireless for business. Subscription details are here.

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