Lose the wires, keep the security: 6 wireless access points tested

Summary:Until recently, it's been difficult to use the words "secure" and "wireless" in the same sentence. Recent developments mean that's no longer the case. We look at six different options.

Lose the wires, keep the security: 6 wireless access points tested
Until recently, it's been difficult to use the words "secure" and "wireless" in the same sentence. Recent developments mean that's no longer the case. We look at six different options.

  Wireless security
  Introduction (cont.)


 How we tested
 Sample Scenario
 Final words
 Editor's choice
 About RMIT
November 2003 was the last time the Test Lab had a look at wireless networking devices for Technology & Business. In that review we placed some emphasis on the security attributes of the wireless networking equipment. In March 2003, we looked at products designed to increase the security of wireless networks; these were virtually the first generation of products specifically designed for that purpose.

They came in several flavours, including beefed-up access points, a dedicated hardware gateway, and a security software suite. In fact, the Editor's Choice winner of both those reviews was Netgear, with the FVM-318 in March 2003 and then the FWAG114 in November 2003. Lets see if Netgear can fend off another onslaught of wireless security opponents in this review and complete the hat trick.

Things have certainly heated up in the wireless security arena since both those reviews were published. Increasingly, enterprises are seeing wireless as a viable data delivery method to enable their staff more freedom around the office. This can increase productivity, reduce capital expenditure, as well as reducing deployment, licensing, and support costs by providing employees with a single notebook or tablet PC, instead of a desktop PC as well as a notebook/tablet.

Many businesses may have shelved their wireless plans previously due to well-publicised security concerns around the wired equivalent privacy (WEP) standard and the 802.11 technology concept, or because their already overburdened IT department simply did not have the resources to place into learning, developing, deploying, and supporting yet another IT system. However, many of these businesses are now sitting up and paying closer attention to the developments and benefits that wireless can provide.

Intel through its Centrino badge has done a great deal of marketing over the past eighteen months, prompting home users to create 802.11 wireless networks and also raising the awareness and profile of public wireless hotspots. Virtually all notebooks these days -- and even some PC system motherboards -- now come with wireless built in.

This review assumes that the reader is already familiar with wireless local area networks (WLAN). Suffice it to say, a basic wireless network consists of a wireless-enabled client PC (generally a notebook or tablet) and a wireless access point (AP) -- most often a small box with one or two antennae that resides somewhere on the local area network (LAN), and enables the operator to connect wirelessly between their PC, the AP, and the LAN, therefore removing the need for a cable between the PC and the LAN.

There are several downsides to wireless networking. The first is interference: wireless networking runs on radio waves and unless an operator has a licence to transmit in specific protected or licensed radio bands they must use the unlicensed spectrum. This means the more wireless equipment out there, the more the airwaves will become polluted. This is OK in a relatively remote location, but in crowded office buildings with many separate companies, it could become a lot more of a problem. Interference degrades the signal which leads to slower speeds or, in some cases, the total inability to operate. Most wireless equipment these days is capable of automatically hopping up and down a few channels to find the clearest link, however this is still very limited due to the small range of unlicensed bandwidth available.

The second downside to wireless LAN has been maximum data speed, however this is slowly improving. Early WLAN equipment ran at 2Mbps, then 11Mbps, followed shortly by 22Mbps and then 54Mbps. Recent developments from vendors like D-Link and Netgear have seen that now pushed to 108Mbps by combining two 54Mbps channels. However, this is still fairly proprietary, requiring particular brand APs and matched network interface cards (NICs).

Maximum data speed is of course theoretical. Real-life deployments must contend with both radio interference and physical interference (physical objects, distance, etc), the bandwidth overheads of maintaining the wireless link itself, implementing security across the link (eats bandwidth), the number of users on the system, (including the amount of data they are likely to be shunting back and forth and the number of users performing simultaneous data transactions across the network), and the distance between the users and the access points.

Topics: Security, Networking

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