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Cisco Boosts Wireless Presence

Cisco Systems Inc. , best known for its copper-based and fiber-optic routing equipment, is making its presence felt in the wireless world with expanded wireless local area network (WLAN) services and security, officials said Monday.

The wireless enhancements, launched from the floor of Comdex in Las Vegas, is a sign of Cisco's further commitment to its "Mobile Office" program, which brings wireless networking capabilities to its business customers.

The manufacturer, like many of its peers, is embracing 802.11x as the wireless standard for enterprise communications. The standard, one of a family of specifications signed off by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), helps corporations design and incorporate different equipment brands on one wireless network.

802.11x has been accepted by many as the de facto WLAN standard, a tribute to widespread manufacturer support (which results in lower costs) and the standard's ability to deliver up to 11Mbps on the 2.4GHz band (802.11b). Improvements to the standard (802.11g) promise to deliver 20+ Mbps over the same band, meaning the standard is scalable down the road.

Bolstering its claim in the wireless community, Cisco announced partnership deals with IBM Corp. and Fairmont Hotel & Resorts Inc.

Both companies are using the Cisco equipment as part of their own wireless initiatives; IBM plans to bundle the Cisco equipment with its "Office Anywhere" program, while Fairmont officials are using Cisco to offer high-speed Internet access to its hotel chain across the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Bermuda and Barbados.

"Increasingly in today's business environment, mobile professionals require secure, reliable, broadband access to Internet services," said Tim Aubrey, Fairmont vice president of technology. "In response to this demand it seemed fitting to deliver best of breed services through a Cisco network solution."

Wireless equipment security -- support of which has been shaky to date -- for 802.11x has been beefed up on its flagship WLAN box, the Aironet 350, Cisco security experts say.

The free equipment upgrade, available at Cisco's download site next month, is important for companies who need to keep both their wireless and ground-based networks secure, according to Christine Falsetti, Cisco wireless networking unit director of marketing.

"Wireless access to information can have a profound effect on productivity gains for business, so the ability to keep information secure is an absolutely critical issue for many businesses today," Falsetti said. "As technologies for circumventing network security systems continue to keep pace with technologies designed to defend against them, Cisco is taking wireless security very seriously and is bringing technological innovations and key technology relationships to the table to allow safe and secure wireless LAN deployments in business networks of all sizes."

Improvements to the Aironet 350 include:

  • Dynamic per user, per-session key enhancements to prevent some passive hack attempts
  • Detecting/dropping packets that have been modified in transit
  • RADIUS accounting records to keep track of wireless online use
  • Access control server (which is Windows-based) or Access Registrar (Unix-based) key configuration options for system administrators.

In addition to its free download, Cisco is also releasing a SAFE white paper for the best approach to wireless network design, an expansion from its wired network security approach. The SAFE series of papers, available to network engineers using Cisco equipment, lets designers implement the safest network whether it's a wireless equipment-only or hybrid network at a person's business.

A NOP World-Technology study, commissioned by Cisco earlier this year, finds that wireless networking has a significant return of investment factor, to the tune of $7,550 per employee for businesses looking to incorporate a WLAN network. Cost savings include cabling for new employees/office changes and the labor involved.

Ben Rogers, the study's project manager, said those costs on an annual basis only get bigger as the wireless network becomes more transparent.

"Considered on an overall company level, the productivity improvements were worth as much as $6.3 million annually to the average large organizations participating in this study," Rogers said. "As wireless LAN infrastructure becomes increasingly ubiquitous within implementing organizations, the productivity gains can be expected to increase even further."