Wireless Comes in the Back Door

In the old days it was relatively easy to control IT. Employees almost never installed their own mainframes, after all. Today it’s different. Anyone can plug in a Wi-Fi solution, with our without the IT shop knowing anything about it. That threat is pushing CTOs to implement wireless LANs on the fly, sometimes without adequate time to prepare or prioritize.

“This was something that everybody in both of our offices wanted right from the very beginning,” said Gary Henry. “Everyone was aware of it and aware of what it could mean.” As chairman of the technology consulting firm Dominion Digital, Henry knew he needed to move first, rolling out Wi-Fi for his 24 employees in Richmond and Charlottesville, Va. before they took matters into their own hands.

It’s an increasingly common scenario.

Wi-Fi is coming in through the “back door,” so to speak, with employee demand driving IT strategy, rather than the other way around. If IT does not respond fast enough, employees may well take matters into their own hands, setting up so-called rogue access points and establishing their own Wi-Fi connectivity outside of the existing corporate network infrastructure.

As a result, more and more CTOs and IT managers find themselves putting other plans on hold in order to install or configure wireless networks instigated not by corporate policy, but rather by employee insistence.

This might be good news for the Wi-Fi industry an indication that more and bigger rollouts of wireless LANs are on the way. But it can also spell trouble for those charged with bringing order to enterprise IT.

“Wireless LANs are disrupting corporate networks and making life difficult for CTOs and systems administrators,” said Kelly Abbott, technology director at Red Door Interactive. “In a perfect world the CTO would have been able to plan for the Wi-Fi onslaught. But Wi-Fi hit the consumer market first and has pushed itself onto the corporate LAN by force majeure.”

This unexpected arrival of Wi-Fi opens the door to several potential problems for the corporate IT manager, the most urgent among these being the question of security. Whether real or perceived, security issues loom large any time a wireless LAN makes its appearance on the corporate landscape.

“Wi-Fi is cheap, effective and easy to set up. So to a certain degree there is no way IT directors can prevent people from getting access to it. But it still is the responsibility of the IT director to find a very effective way to secure all the data in their network,” said Stephen Wellman, a wireless analyst at FierceWireless.

The prospect of employees setting up their own Wi-Fi capabilities makes security a hot issue not just in firms where wireless LANs already exist, but also in those where Wi-Fi remains a question mark. Again, it comes back to the possibility of employees setting up their own rogue access points.

“If you don’t have your network secured properly, a rogue can allow unauthorized access to your entire network,” explained Warren Wilson, an analyst at Summit Strategies. “Those network jacks make it easy to plug in, and it’s harder to detect.”

Hand in hand with the security question comes the issue of network management.

“Traditional network management tools don’t see or control wireless APs or devices. So you have everything from security settings to software upgrades that you now have to do physically, individually, if they have not been automated. That can become a pretty daunting task,” said Wilson.

The good news is that both problems, security and management, can be easily solved once the network manager is aware of the presence of a wireless LAN on the premises. Of course, this saddles those managers with yet another task: Locating and identifying access points that may already be up and running.

This is where the detective work begins. Armed with products like Cognio and Netstumbler, IT managers will have to scout the offices in search of rogue signals. In corporate suites across the country, such investigations already are underway, and technical staffers scramble to contain Wi-Fi distribution before it takes on a life of its own.

It requires some legwork, but experts say it is worth the time, especially in a setting in which wireless LAN deployment is not yet too widespread. Finding the rogue APs will still be relatively easy, and once they have been located their management becomes almost routine. “It’s really just like having another router out there,” said Abbott.

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