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Wireless networks: A planning guide

With an improving wireless security landscape and new standards emerging, planning for a wireless network isn't as complicated as it once was. Experts weigh in on the best practices for planning and securing your wireless network.

Editor's note: This is the second of a two-part tip on planning wireless networks. Click here to read part one.

Wireless network technology

The core elements of wireless networks include some level of 802.11-based wireless access points, client adapters and receivers -- commonly built into today's notebooks -- and encryption, according to Bill Waters, senior manager of vendor programs for technical sales at distributor Ingram Micro Inc. in Santa Ana, Calif.

Consider which wireless standard you want to use. Currently, one emerging standard, 801.11n, is attracting a lot of attention and was recently approved in draft form by an IEEE task group. The new standard promises to boost network speeds tremendously, said Paul DeBeasi, senior analyst at Burton Group Inc. He noted that real throughput could reach 125Mbps, compared with a throughput of 25Mbps for the current 802.11g standard.

But, don't rush out to buy it, DeBeasi warned, as the bugs are still being worked out. Commercial 802.11n products will appear in a few months, but the standard won't receive final approval until fall 2008. That means products you buy this summer are considered "pre-standard," and may or may not be software upgradeable to the final standard. See how the first products do in the field later this year, and stick with 802.11g if you need to buy today, DeBeasi advised.

Whichever wireless technology you select, keep in mind that throughput will be much less than that of a wired network. Even 100 Mpbs is the equivalent of wired technology circa 1989, said John Riddle, president of value-added reseller Information Networking Co., in Irvine, Calif.

After completing a site survey, you should have an idea of how many access points you need. Size your network accordingly.

Some people will run to the local office supply store to pick up a basic $69 access point. "That's OK if you have a two-person office. But, if you're on a couple floors, and 20 to 30 people, and you go beyond a few access points, then [you] really have to look at a wireless LAN system," DeBeasi said.

That system should include a controller, often integrated with a switch, which helps the SMB manage access points, optimize the radio signal and implement security from a single management interface. DeBeasi also advises small and medium-sized businesses to work with a single vendor rather than building a mixed-vendor network that could cause compatibility and management headaches.

Wireless network security

Security is probably the greatest concern associated with wireless technology, conjuring images of snarky hackers cruising the streets with electronic equipment, searching for access to someone else's wireless network. But the wireless security situation is in much better shape now than it was just a couple of years ago.

An older wireless security approach, called Wired Equivalent Privacy, met its share of criticism when it debuted but has since been succeeded by the more secure Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) and WPA2. Such developments have elevated Riddle's confidence level in "out of the box" wireless security to "seven on a 10-point scale" for high-end products, he said.

Ironically, the biggest security problem for SMBs is the easiest one to solve: People simply don't turn it on. "If you're not going to install security and set it up the way it's supposed to be, how can you expect it to work?" Riddle asked.

Ingram Micro's Waters emphasized that a security policy is critical: "What is your security policy? Is it understood, and can people view it? People say they have a security policy, but no one knows what the contents are."

Waters also warned that if you opt to allow guest access, whether for vendors or customers, you need to define what level of access those guests should have.

If you aren't planning for a wireless LAN today, consider this from DeBeasi: "If you asked me two years ago, I'd say wireless was being driven by the CEO, who would say, 'This is the latest and greatest thing, we have to have it now.' Today, it is so pervasive, even in the home, that every employee wants it. Now, it's just an expectation that if you don't have wireless you'd kind of behind the times."

James M. Connolly is a contributing writer based in Norwood, Mass. Let us know what you think about this tip; email

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