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Issue of January 2005 

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Wi-Fi beyond the hype

WLANs and Wi-Fi are interrelated terms that have passed the crest of the enterprise technology hype cycle. Has the technology stabilised? What is new on the WLAN front? Read on for answers to these questions and more. by Anil Patrick R

The Wireless LAN (WLAN) is a technology that has been much talked about, perhaps even overhyped. From its first successful foray as 802.11b in the enterprise segment to the proposed WiMax and 802.11n standards, the technology has evolved rapidly. This makes it a good time to take stock of what is happening on the WLAN front.

The discussion starts with a look at the inroads that WLANs have made within India Inc, following which is an overview of the latest technologies and trends in the WLAN space.


WLAN adoption in India is still at a primary level although organisations have started adopting [the technology] selectively. Early adopters are organisations for whom it's business critical to have WLANs
Satish Pendse, CIO, Kuoni Travel Group, India

'Live life wirefree', 'productivity with no strings attached'; those were just some of the taglines pushing the Wi-Fi enterprise LAN a couple of years back. However, the fact remains that Wi-Fi deployment in Indian enterprises is still immature when compared to its counterpart, Wi-Fi campus connectivity.

When examined closely, it can be seen that a majority of organisations that have WLANs in place belong to the hospitality and travel (airports) verticals. In these cases, it is a simple case of providing additional value to their clients by providing WLAN access. "WLAN adoption in India is still at a primary level although organisations have started adopting [the technology] selectively. Early adopters are organisations for whom it's business critical to have WLANs, such as hotels and airports," said Satish Pendse, CIO, Kuoni Travel Group, India.

Apart from these verticals where WLAN is of 'cosmetic appeal' or a factor providing competitive advantage, WLAN implementations have been need-specific. For instance, many Indian manu-facturers use WLANs on the shop floor to avoid strewing cabling across the work area while ensuring that users are mobile. "Wireless solutions are more feasible for organisations where the network infrastructure is already in place and there is no buffer for extra cabling. It can also be helpful for the campus LAN kind of environment where line of sight is not an issue," said Hilal Khan, Manager Information Systems, Honda Siel Cars India Ltd.

Despite the availability of the technology for the last four years, most Indian organisations are weary of hearing about the virtues of WLANs. This is largely due to the cost factor. Although WLANs have decreased in price to a great extent, wired LANs are still much cheaper. Naturally, unless connectivity needs dictate the usage of a WLAN, Indian companies prefer wired LANs.

Wired LANs also offer a better performance to cost ratio. "WLAN speed as compared to Gigabyte wired LANs is still an issue, especially when one expects to run high bandwidth applications such as video in the LAN environment," said Satish Pendse.

Concerns about security have also hampered widespread WLAN adoption. The first 802.1x standard, 802.11b, is better known for its lack of security than anything else. With 802.11b vulnerabilities emerging every other week, enterprises have become doubtful about just how secure WLANs truly are.

"The key reasons behind organisations not deploying WLANs could be due to investment in existing infrastructure. Another reason is security concerns, since the data travels through air and not over wires. This is not a technology problem, but one of perception," said Shrikant Patil, Director (Solutions), South Asia, Intel.

A change for the better

It is necessary to emphasise at this juncture that WLANs are no longer as insecure as popular perception paints them out to be. Newer WLAN standards such as 802.11g have been developed with an emphasis on rectifying the earlier loopholes associated with 802.11b.

Additionally there are efforts like 802.11i that attempt to bolster 802.11x security. The new 802.11i standard promises Robust Secure Networks (RSN) by eliminating earlier vulnerabilities in the 802.11 standard like the RC4 algorithm. "With the availability of Wireless Protected Access (WPA) standards, Wi-Fi devices have become more secure and robust. Therefore the acceptance of WiFi has increased multifold. 802.11i supports Temporal Key Integrity Protocol (TKIP) and Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) data encryption," said KVSSS Gunneswara Rao, Director-VoIP, D-Link India

Many security concerns surrounding WLAN deployment may turn out to be groundless if things pan out the way they are expected. "The products need to evolve to address physical security as well as a gamut of security operations, such as rogue access point detection, since these are not addressed by the standards alone," said Philip Goldie, Product Marketing Manager, Security & Mobility Solutions, Asia Pacific, Nortel Networks.

See Box: The power of i to learn more about 802.11i, which promises the long overdue enterprise class security for WLANs.

The power of i

The 802.11i security standard was proposed in 2001, as an addendum to the 802.11 standard. However, this standard to create Robust Secure Networks (RSN) was ratified only in June 2004.

To understand what is radically new about 802.11i, we have to start with what was wrong with 802.11. 802.11 uses Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP) as the default security measure to protect data traffic. This protocol basically uses the RC4 algorithm for encryption and decryption. RC4 has vulnerabilities that allow black hat hackers to exploit it.

This is why the 802.11i standard was suggested in 2001 as an addendum to the 802.11 standard to secure WLANs. During the interim period, when 802.11i was being forged, Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) was formulated by the WiFi Alliance as the complete 802.11i standard would take time to develop.

Although, WPA was meant to be a superior alternative to the vulnerability ridden WEP or the alternative MAC address filtering methods used at that time, and was based on already available parts of the 802.11i standard, it still uses RC4 and has vulnerabilities such as Pre-Shared Keys (PSK) that make it susceptible to dictionary attacks if short passwords are used.

The 802.11i standard does away with RC4 altogether. However, the biggest strength of 802.11i as opposed to WEP or WPA is the Advanced Encryption Standard (AES). AES offers greater security than WEP and WPA. In fact, it is more secure and faster than Triple DES. 802.11i also features the Temporal Key Integrity Protocol (TKIP).

Here to stay

Overall, 802.11b still remains the most commonly used WLAN standard in India. When it comes to new WLAN implementations, 802.11g is the preferred standard.

The 802.11g WLAN protocol has a maximum data transmission speed of 54 Mbps as opposed to 802.11b's 11 Mbps. "802.11b gives a theoretical 11 Mbps, and a real-world 4-5 Mbps This means that in a shared situation, one could get speeds at the 1 Mbps level, or lower," said Devendra Khamtekar, Principal Consultant, Cisco Systems, India & SAARC.

This is acceptable for providing Internet access but not for office LAN connectivity where there are a large number of users who are used to higher speeds on wired LANs. "On the other hand, 802.11g gives a maximum of 54 Mbps or 20-25 Mbps in the real world. It is optimal for multi-user office networks," said Khamtekar.

Another reason behind 802.11g's appeal is its operation in the unlicensed 2.4 GHz operational frequency band. In India, the licensed 5 GHz band is largely reserved for radar and satellite applications. This has proved to be a major deterrent for Indian companies wishing to adopt the 802.11a standard (the WLAN standard competing with 802.11g). Standards based on 2.4 GHz (802.11b/g) have done better than the 5 GHz standards (802.11a) due to such licensing issues. “Today you get everything that 802.11a can offer through 802.11g (using a licensed frequency spectrum). Users are not keen on going in for 802.11a," said Gunneswara Rao.

In the works

If the industry’s development on various standards is anything to go by, there is considerable excitement in store when it comes to WLAN technology. As of now, QoS issues are a taboo topic when associated with WLANs. The 802.11e standard promises to take care of that by defining QoS mechanisms to support voice and video traffic over WLANs. This protocol is expected to be ratified by mid 2005. "Without a doubt, voice and multimedia are the killer applications for wireless and again there are issues both in terms of standards as well as products. Once 802.11e is ratified and delivered in terms of real products, we'll see voice and multimedia become a truly viable killer application for WLANs," said Philip Goldie.

Talking about performance, one cannot ignore 802.11n, an upcoming standard that's expected to deliver speeds of 108 Mbps—double today's best—by 2007.

802.11r is yet another standard that promises to provide fast roaming between access points. This one's also expected to be finalized by 2007.

Anil patrick R can be reached at:

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