Buying guide: wireless networks

Understand the basics of wireless local area networks.

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Q. What are the basic equipment or components of a wireless network?
1. Clients
Most clients that are shipping today come with Wi-Fi integrated into the computer (Intel Centrino). This means the SMB does not have to deal with installing and maintaining third-party adapters and drivers.

2. Access Points
The access point is where the wireless LAN (local area network) meets the LAN. The access point can vary in size and capabilities. Access points can also be integrated directly into the SMB's router or switch, which simplifies the overall network design and reduces the number of devices that need to be managed and serviced.

3. Controller
The controller is the wireless client termination point for the network. The controller then enforces security and network policies that have been configured for the system. The controller also acts as the manager of the RF network, performing functions like interference detection and avoidance, as well as identifying and containing security threats.

Q. What should you look out for when installing a wireless local area network?
1. Reliable and proven products
Since many SMBs don't have dedicated IT staff to deal with wireless LAN issues, it's critical that the equipment stays running. Therefore, capabilities like dynamic RF (radio frequency) management and automatic interference recovery are critical. Because Wi-Fi is an unlicensed technology, there is always the chance that another business--next door or across the street--will start up its own wireless LAN and cause interference between the two.

SMB Buying Guide

Did you know?
WiFi is an evolving technology with many new standards in the works.

Bottom line:
Choose the technologies that are proven and based on official standards. Stay away from proprietary standards that are at the bleeding edge of Wi-Fi. Standards such as 802.11b/g and 802.11a are proven and highly implemented standards technologies that should prove a good base for the WLAN.

2. Easy to use
Being able to quickly and easily deploy the WLAN equipment helps SMBs limit the time and effort they have to put into maintaining the network. Look for a plug-and-play system that allows you to configure network and security policies centrally (once) and then simply add the (access points that are required for the converge needed. This is much easier then having to configure every access point independently. Besides centralized management and control, look for the systems ability to perform Auto RF, which is the ability to configure the RF environment variables based on best operational performance.

3. 802.11 Standards
WiFi is an evolving technology with many new standards in the works. For an SMB, it is important to choose the technologies that are proven and based on official standards. So stay away from proprietary standards that are at the bleeding edge of Wi-Fi. Standards such as 802.11b/g and 802.11a are proven and highly implemented standards technologies that should prove a good base for the WLAN.

4. Security
Depending on the SMBs' environment and requirements, the level of security protection can vary. The basic level of security that should be enforced on the WLAN is WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy), which allows for basic encryption of traffic but does not ensure that the network is secure. 802.1x and/or WPA (Wi-Fi Protected Access) is a more robust security protocol but requires a RADIUS (Remote Authentication Dial-In User Service) server for remote user authentication, which will require addition effort from the SMB to manage.

Q. When it comes to choosing from the different brands on the market, what questions should you ask a vendor?
What is the vendor's market share?
Are they standards based?
Can they scale up with my company?
What support can they expect on the product?
Do they provide a total SMB network solution?

This tech tip was contributed by Tom Koenig, wireless product manager for Cisco Systems in Asia Pacific.

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