Wireless LANs were a hot item at the recent Networld+Interop show in Las Vegas, meriting a large Wi-Fi Pavilion in the main hall.
But unlike previous shows where gadgets and software prevailed, most wireless vendors focused on the many deployment challenges that organizations face with this fast maturing sector of technology.
“Enterprises are often hesitant to deploy wireless due to deployment hassles having to do with access points (APs), wireless coverage and the need for extensive wiring,” said Paul Cegielski, a wireless communication manager at San Francisco-based Vivato.
In this article, we take a look at the some of the tools offered to ease the WLAN deployment burden.
Painting a Pretty Picture
Some wireless firms apparently paint too rosy a picture when it comes to wireless projects. Without coming on site, they develop detailed sketches of how and where to place various pieces of wireless hardware. Canned wireless blueprints that show beautifully aligned circles of wireless coverage throughout the enterprise, for example, came under attack from several sides as being too simplistic.
“Placing wireless access points based on building blueprints is going to get you into trouble,” said Dan Park, director of Wireless Deployment at Intermec (Everett, Wash.), a company specializing in the manufacturer and integration of both wired and wireless networks. “Without a competent site survey, you have no way to determine signal strength, wireless coverage or areas where the signal will be impeded.”
He cites factors such as microwave systems at industrial sites, as well as metal structures as a few of the common impediments of the 2.4 GHz wireless signal. As a result, he says, companies that don’t do site surveys often end up placing a lot more APs in the building than are needed.
“The tendency is to draw even smaller circles just to be safe,” said Park. “Yet a good site survey identifies those few areas of interference as well as the many areas of very strong signal where you can afford to spread the APs around more thinly and still get a great signal.”
As a way of reducing the cost for large enterprises and VARs in implementing its range of wireless products, NEC has developed a do-it-yourself approach to site surveys. This improves margins as otherwise, resellers have to bring in consultants at a premium to work out the best way to deploy wireless devices. The software, available with NEC wireless networking equipment, walks the network manager or VAR through the steps of a site survey, assists with load balancing, isolates areas of poor coverage and fine tunes the placement of APs.
“It helps validate the assumptions behind AP placement,” said Jay Krauser, assistant general manager for corporate networks at NEC America. He admits, however, that wireless technology is still far from being plug and play. Smaller networks and those with less wireless know-how would be advised to bring in an expert to assist with deployment. But for large enterprises and experienced VARs, this methodology could save time and money.
Fewer Access Points
Other tools aimed at reducing APs and extending the range of wireless LANs concerns are offered by Vivato, a Wi-Fi infrastructure company. It offers a series of switches and bridge/routers for 802.11 that are best suited for large scale deployments. A demo at the Vegas show, for example, highlighted a 2.4 GHz Indoor Wi-Fi Switch located above the Vivato booth.
With a 100-degree field of view, the switch projects wireless coverage for 300 meters as opposed to 200 feet for the typical AP. At a cost of around $9,000, however, this approach appears to make sense in mid-sized to large sites wireless implementations.
Vivato also demonstrated a Wi-Fi Bridge/Router that received backhaul from its switch. By placing the bridge on the edge of the switch’s field of view, it extended the coverage zone beyond the line of sight.
While the price point of tools like those demonstrated by Vivato and Intermec may seem higher than simply buying a bunch of cheap APs and placing them throughout the building, there is another key factor in the cost/benefit equation — electrical wiring.
“Pulling power to your wireless APs is expensive,” said Park. “It’s much cheaper to pull Ethernet and use power over Ethernet wiring.”
Cegielski agrees. Both affirm that it is less expensive to put in a wireless versus a wired network if you are starting from scratch and have not yet run in the power. Running power over Ethernet, using technologies to reduce the number of wireless APs, placing APs at the edge of the building rather than in the center, as well as directional antennas to focus coverage on a remote area were a few of the deployment options offered as a way to cut deployment costs.
Many vendors offered a variety of WLAN security features. While most of these focused on PKI, encryption and authentication, but Irvine, Calif.-based Rainbow Technologies takes a different approach aimed at making wireless networks more secure.
“No matter the security measures you deploy, the system is only as strong as the person accessing it,” said Jam Khan, an engineer with Rainbow. He cites studies that show most users writing down their passwords and even using the word “password.”
His company offers an authentication device known as iKey that eliminates many of the dangers inherent in usernames and passwords. Users insert the tool into the USB port and type in a PIN for secure access to core business applications.
For WLAN deployments, Khan recommends porting business apps to the Web so that wireless devices are only able to directly access the Web and not corporate applications. That way, without the iKey and PIN, they don’t gain access to business applications and databases.