Putting Focus on WLANs

N+I show highlights functional 802.11x gear.

While numerous high-speed wireless technologies flap about, WLANs have continued a steady migration into corporate America, gaining ground with added speed, security and the number of devices supported.

At this weeks NetWorld+Interop show in Las Vegas—an event traditionally more concerned with function than flash—wireless LAN will be the primary wireless focus.

Startup Atheros Communications Inc. will team up with at least five new partners to demonstrate products based on the 802.11a standard. At 54M bps, the technology outpaces the 11M bps of its predecessor, 802.11b, but has been considered too costly and power-hungry to be feasible. But Atheros 802.11a CMOS radio-on-a-chip—and the new products built with it—aims to change that.

"This allowed us to get high level and low cost and overcome all the obstacles that kept people from developing 802.11a," said Rich Redelfs, CEO of Atheros, in Sunnyvale, Calif.

Card Access Inc., Intermec Technologies Corp., Proxim Inc., TDK Corp. and Intel Corp. subsidiary Xircom Inc. all announced last week that they will support Atheros radio chip in upcoming products.

In addition to speed, 802.11a has the benefit of running in the 5GHz frequency band, which faces much less interference than the 2GHz band used by 802.11b, Bluetooth and others. The Federal Communications Commission has mandated that products that run in the 5GHz band perform faster than 1M bps, so the band is for serious speedsters only and should remain less crowded.

The CMOS radio chips will cost about $35 each in OEM quantities of 100,000 or more, Atheros officials said. These chips will start shipping to partners in volume this summer, with consumer products available later this year.

"We have not deployed wireless LANs, but 54M bps would make it a lot more attractive, and if it is cheap and small enough to be implemented inside a phone or PDA [personal digital assistant] I think that would be fantastic," said Jorge Abellas-Martin, CIO at Arnold Worldwide in Boston and an eWeek Corporate Partner. "As an aside, I think that Bluetooth is dying on the vine so if this chip does what it is supposed to, is cheap enough and it can be easily integrated into a network, this may be a Bluetooth killer."

But even with a reasonable price, products based on 802.11a may be a tough sell for customers who already have WLANs installed—especially large companies that already depend on a particular manufacturer.

"We are using Cisco [Systems Inc.] to gain the benefits of end-to-end management, and we would follow through the Cisco product line into 802.11a," said Kevin Wilson, lead workstation manager at Duke Energy Corp., in Charlotte, N.C., and an eWeek Corporate Partner.

The 802.11a technology will appear in notebooks and access points initially, although Atheros officials noted that Card Access and Xircom create add-on modules for Palm Inc.s PalmPilot and Handspring Inc.s Visor PDAs, so support for handhelds is not out of the question, though neither company would commit to such plans.

"54M bps for a Palm is a little tough right now," Atheros Redelfs said. "But these PDAs will have more memory. Were getting to the point where it will start to make sense."

Handheld support has reached the 802.11b standard, also known as WiFi.

Symbol Technologies Inc. at N+I will be introducing several products to show that WLANs arent just for notebooks anymore. First among these will be a CompactFlash card that supports several Pocket PC devices, including Hewlett-Packard Co.s Jornada and Compaq Computer Corp.s iPaq. The card will ship this summer for $249. Eventually, the company will create Secure Digital 802.11b cards for the Palm platform as well, according to officials at Symbol, in Holtsville, N.Y.

For a while, the industry expected local connections among access points and small handheld devices to be the realm of Bluetooth, which is supposed to be less expensive than WLAN. "But Bluetooth, really, is not here," said Mark Ferrone, a spokesman for Symbol. "And you can develop a CompactFlash radio faster than you can develop a Bluetooth card."

Symbol is also introducing a voice-over-IP handset that supports WiFi and the International Telecommunications Unions H.323 standard, which means it is compliant with normal telephony switches as well as with LAN.

Speed aside, one area of concern for WLAN users is security. Several recent studies show that WLANs that rely solely on the security inherent in the 802.11 standards are highly vulnerable.

"We are worried about security and know that managing encryption keys is going to be a problem and know we have to get to dynamic keys and know we have to do this with a vendor- independent solution," said Dukes Wilson. "I see [most people] using vendor-specific solutions at the outset. As laptop networking moves off the mini-PCI card and onto the system board and 802.11x moves into the mini-PCI slot, then large accounts will not have as much control over the specific 802.11x cards in their laptops. But, by then, well have settled into some sort of de facto standard for key management."

To that end, Symbol is also introducing a firmware upgrade for its existing access points, which will support the Kerberos authentication protocol. The upgrade is in beta now and will be released next month.

While WLAN manufacturers admit that security is a problem, they also insist that some of the onus lies with the people who install the products.