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Wi-Fi Moves Into Management Stage

The initial emphasis in the adoption cycle of most new technologies is usually placed on deployment. It is only after the technology has turned the corner toward mass adoption that IT departments are able to shift attention toward secondary concerns, such as security and management.

It appears that the wireless LAN movement is following a similar course.

As wireless networks, not far removed from being exclusively associated with vertical markets such as healthcare and retail, enter the mainstream arena of the Local Area Network, enterprise IT departments are searching for the best way to manage the untethered portion of their networks.

That search becomes more critical, says Eric Hermelee, vice president of marketing at mobile management at middleware company WaveLink, as enterprises begin to replace large segments of their wired network with wireless equipment.

"When you have hundreds or even thousands of wireless access points, you create a huge management headache," says Hermelee. "Enterprises have been rushing to deploy wireless LANs and the IT department has no visibility into wireless parts of their infrastructure."

However, it's not just the size of WLANs that are posing new management challenges to IT departments, he adds. In addition to the increase in the number of wireless devices in a corporate environment, wireless links, which now operate at speeds of 11 megabits per second (Mbps), are now carrying mission-critical traffic. For all of these reasons, say Hermelee, many enterprises now require a centralized management system to both streamline configuration and software updates, as well as making sure that a wireless link is not inhibiting the flow or corporate data or leaving the network unprotected from outside attacks.

Back in June, Cisco Systems introduced a centralized management system for its Aironet wireless LAN products. The Wireless LAN Solution Engine (WLSE) is an appliance-like device that provides IT managers with a single console for configuring, troubleshooting and maintaining wireless access points.

Prior to the introduction of the WLSE, Cisco's access points could only be maintained through management systems embedded into each product. While an embedded approach is serviceable for environments with only a few access points, a centralized approach is much more cost- and time-efficient as wireless networks grow, says Bob Dimicco, director and general manager of the enterprise management business unit at Cisco.

While there is not a hard and fast rule for determining when an IT department should graduate to a centralized management system, Dimicco says that enterprises should probably start moving that way when the network grows beyond 50 devices.

"The rule of thumb we've seen," says Dimicco, "is that once a customer gets to more than a hundred they are probably going to want a centralized system."

The major benefit of a centralized approach, of course, is for an enterprise to carry out configurations, maintenance and repairs automatically, eliminating the need to work on a device-by-device basis. Access points, says Hermelee, rely on almost constant updates to firmware in order to keep track of the latest technology and most recent changes to standards. In addition to constant updates, wireless access points often require frequent configuration changes to reflect modifications, for example, in access and security policies.

Without a centralized approach, a technician would be required to separately configure each access point in the network, a process that could take as long as 30 minutes. With a centralized management system, such as WaveLink's Mobile Manager, a technician could simply create a single configuration profile and automatically download it to all of the access points in the network.

"With Mobile Manager you can set up a profile and say, 'I want all of these devices to do this or that,'" says Hermelee. "Then you just hit a button and it goes out to 25 or even 5,000 access points automatically."

While streamlining the firmware update process, especially since an immature technology is constantly being tinkered with by manufacturers, is enough justification for centralizing management, Hermelee says Mobile Manager offers a number of additional benefits.

For starters, he says that a centralized system is vital for improving security, namely by dynamically managing WEP keys. WaveLink's Mobile Manager uses an agent technology to essentially monitor each access point in a network segment. If it detects something amiss, such as a security breach or a configuration error, the agent will send a notification of the failure and then launch an attempt to correct it, say Hermelee.

Perhaps the most underrated benefit of having a holistic view of a wireless network, rather than an element-by-element perspective, is the ability to perform traffic analysis, which can be used for capacity planning.

"A wireless network is much more fluid than a wired environment," say Hermelee, who lists The Gap and Federal Express among WaveLink's customer base. "Capacity demands shift as users shift from location to location."

For Cisco's Dimicco, one of the biggest advantages of a centralized management system is that it allows IT departments to organize the WLAN by domains, granting privileges and access rights to different departments as the IT department sees fit.

"Say you have a campus environment with thousands of access points," says Dimicco. "You can put them into one group or you could group them by floor or by building."

Both WaveLink and Cisco say that the eventual goal is to integrate the management of wireless devices into an overall network management system, such as HP's OpenView. Currently, Dimicco says Cisco can feed relative information about the WLAN to a central management system. WaveLink appears to be taking the integration a bit further, claiming that it is working on a plug in module for Computer Associates' UniCenter product and that it is also working with the other major players in the space.

The major difference between the WaveLink and the Cisco management systems is that Mobile Manager, and the company's client-oriented management system, Avalanche, are capable of working with devices made by multiple manufacturers. The Cisco system, of course, is proprietary and only manages Cisco devices.

Hermelee says multivendor support is a major advantage, especially as standards solidify and businesses feel more comfortable about mixing products in the networks from different suppliers. Cisco, however, recognizes the shortcoming and actually partners with WaveLink to provide a single management system for customers that have a heterogeneous wireless environment.

Joe McGarvey is a freelance writer based in New York. He can be reached at mailto:mmcgarvey@optonline.net.

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