Wi-Fi Admin Tools Need Target Practice

Networld+Interop is highlighting a slew of security and administration tools for wireless LANs, but Wireless Supersite Editor Ross Rubin reports that many of their features may soon be overtaken by broader network-management tools.

At Network+Interop and in the weeks leading up to it, a bevy of manufacturers have introduced software or hardware/software combinations focusing on wireless LANs. Their mission is to provide relief to IT managers besieged by requests for wireless networks or befuddled by how to manage their rapidly improving yet still spotty security.

Much has been made of Wi-Fis currently inadequate security—both in theory and in practice, the latter far more damaging than the former. To keep access points friendly, most consumer-focused access points ship with any kind of security disabled. With the process for setting up even WEP as complicated as it is, this is probably a smart move for the manufacturers, but it is a disaster for enterprises that fear hackers.

The simplified setup and better protection of Wi-Fi Protected Access should prove a win-win for both camps. Consumer-level access point providers should use WPA as a turning point to start shipping their wares with security turned on.

There are other network management issues that the nomadic factor of Wi-Fi highlight, such as allowing guests with limited access privileges onto the network, but the opening up issue of rogue access points is probably the most significant factor differentiating wireless network management from its wireline counterpart. And, like most security issues, it is one that is at least as much a process as technology problem.

If the other security features of many of these products – encryption, authentication, directory services – sound familiar, they are. Already, the tried and trusted means for protecting network access, from secure shell access to VPNs, provide strong security over even an "unprotected" WLAN. And because the Wi-Fi Alliance addresses improved security through such standards as WPA and AES, you can expect the Wi-Fi security products to flee the space faster than movie audiences watching "Dreamcatcher". As these vendors gradually reposition into the network management space, theyll become ripe targets for dissolution into the sea of general network management tools.

Of course, those stalwart products are used to dealing with traditional computers as their clients. The other trend that is starting to surface is the creeping of Wi-Fi into other kinds of devices not traditionally thought of as networked devices. Wi-Fi has enabled a second wind for two severely blunted revolutions of the late 1990s – Voice Over IP and Internet appliances.

The promise of reinventing the cordless phone as a wireless networking device has attracted the attention of giants such as Cisco and startups such as Vocera. Microsoft is also implementing VoIP into Windows CE to support future classes of these devices. Both Wi-Fi phones are also examples of devices that normally lack IP capability hopping on to the net. Along with products such as Linksyss Wireless Presentation Gateway projector accessory in the enterprise network and Wi-Fi-enabled stereos in the home, they are redefining the classes of devices that populate the Wi-Fi network.

The wave of policies and performance measurement tools that these products could generate seem distant from the tactical firefighting that dominates the floor of N+I. If they find success in the marketplace, they could produce a fundamental network shift that moves beyond the soft ROI benefits currently associated with Wi-Fi.

Does Wi-Fi bring a whole new set of management issues or is it just entering an awkward adolescence? E-mail me.

Wireless Supersite Editor Ross Rubin is a senior analyst at eMarketer. He has researched wireless communications since 1994 and has been covering technology since 1989.

More from Ross Rubin: