Symbol Pushes WLAN Security

Consortium, new tools promote interim encryption solutions.

With the long-awaited WLAN security standard known as 802.11i hung up in the approval process, some vendors are moving ahead with their own security solutions.

Symbol Technologies Inc., along with Intersil Corp., Intermec Technologies Corp., Microsoft Corp. and Cisco Systems Inc., have formed an ad hoc consortium to develop an interim solution known as SSN, or Simple Secure Network. Symbol, of Holtsville, N.Y., is also working on its own solutions.

SSN changes the encryption key periodically, as opposed to the WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy) standard, which uses a static key. Symbol officials said that products incorporating SSN should be on the market by this fall and that these products should be upgradable to support 802.11i when that standard becomes available.

The IEEE has worked for more than a year on 802.11i, a protocol that promises to fix WEP security holes. Because it includes several encryption and authentication methods, it may be incompatible with some wireless LAN devices even after it is ratified. WLANs were originally developed with notebooks in mind, but they are now supported in products from handhelds to printers. Ratification of 802.11i isnt expected until September 2003.

"One of the challenges with 802.11i is that as it has been delayed, it has been growing," said Ray Martino, vice president of network products at Symbol. "Some handheld operating systems wont be able to handle it."

SSN will require less processing power than 802.11i but still might be too heavy for low-end devices, Martino said. Some handheld devices will be able to support SSN, including a Pocket PC with an Xscale processor that Symbol plans to release next month. But not all handheld devices have powerful processors.

To that end, Symbol has developed MCM, or Mobile Computer Mode, a scaled-down version of TKIP (Temporal Key Integrity Protocol). TKIP is a meantime security solution endorsed by the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance. It will be included in 802.11i. MCM should be available next year.

IT managers said theyre comfortable with security solutions that dont necessarily adhere to a standard because theyre accustomed to meantime solutions of their own.

"Well continue to use our [virtual private network] solution until ... theres a better alternative," said Nathan Lemmon, chief engineer for wireless systems development at FedEx Corp., in Memphis, Tenn. "Standards are good; they just take too long. Weve got a 24-hour mentality here, and one of these days just doesnt work for us. When 802.11i is finalized, well consider it."

Symbol officials said security will be at the center of a WLAN enterprise platform the company plans to release at NetWorld+Interop in Atlanta next month.