Recently, a client asked me to design a management scheme for his burgeoning wireless network. When I asked how many access points he had, he replied, "Eleven, but I only know where nine of them are." Sadly, that's a fairly common response.
With a wired infrastructure, answering the same question is simple: you look at your IT asset management database. But, for some reason, good management rules rarely apply to wireless and mobile infrastructure (this goes double for PDAs, but that's another story). Because $200 access points offer an easy connection, many network managers apparently don't consider them "true" infrastructure, and so don't attempt to manage them as carefully as the rest of the network. Users or even network administrators plug in a single access point to fulfill some short-term need, and the next thing you know, you've got 20 of the little suckers sitting in nooks and crannies all over the place. This creeping rollout is a very easy trap to fall into, and is time-consuming to escape.
Using 20/20 hindsight, this is obviously a serious mistake, considering that wireless LAN access points can expose an entire corporate network. WLANs need to be brought into the mainstream of LAN infrastructure. They're an extension of the network, not some fringe element that managers can ignore. WLAN infrastructure needs to be included immediately in an existing asset management plan and maintenance policy.
Cost is another issue. WLAN deployment is practically the only IT industry segment that's expanding rapidly. If your WLAN installations are growing, TCO is an issue. Buying expensive, intelligent access points with quality integrated management features is certainly the right way to go for small WLANs (maybe three to 10 access points). But if you need dozens or even hundreds of access points, it makes a lot of fiscal sense to buy cheap access points and centralise their management intelligence with software or a dedicated hardware appliance -- especially if you already have access points installed and are looking to grow your WLAN infrastructure. Centralising management like this means you're not locked into a single hardware vendor.
But to make this happen, where do you turn? Unfortunately, the answer is not at all simple. WLAN manufacturers have paid attention to wireless deployment tools and third-party WLAN vendors, such as Bluesocket or Netmotion Wireless, have been busy developing wireless security products over the last year, but dedicated WLAN management tools have definitely taken a backseat.