We need better WLAN management

Oliver Rist: It's about time vendors woke up to the fact that WLANs need a specialist management tool, before any more access points just disappear.

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.

This year's Networld+Interop and Comdex Fall trade shows offered a few rays of hope, including Symbol Technologies' Mobius Axon Wireless System, Proxim's Orinoco Wireless Network Manager, and a number of updated sniffers from folks such as Network Associates. The trouble with the first two is that they're both hardware appliances. That's not a huge hurdle, but it's not as flexible as a software tool -- especially one that can integrate into an existing network management software framework, such as Tivoli or OpenView. Cisco and HP have both promised such a solution for their network management suites, but so far we haven't seen any results. Another nice feature would be customisation, such as a single interface or application suite that would allow me to match WLAN networking specialists and their needs with desktop support folks who deal with notebooks, PDAs, and tablets, which typically outnumber the other two on the WLAN. To diagnose a sudden tablet network outage, for example, you have to figure out what's at fault: the 802.11x network, the XP Pro Tablet, or their associated hardware. In a mixed wired/wireless infrastructure, you'd get much better support if you could assign these technologies to specific personnel, hand out dedicated tools, and build some expertise. This would speed up the learning curve and make personnel organisation easier. Unfortunately, while 802.11b management tools are beginning to show up as blips on the radar screen, mobility management applications in general are still evolving. The trick here is not only to account for mobility -- for example, remotely locating a downed notebook regardless of where it is on the network -- but to address the mobile user as a whole. That means combining management features for 802.11x and specialised OSes (such as CE or Tablet XP), mobile security and authentication, and rapt attention to evolving standards, including Bluetooth and whatever else pops out of the 802.11x alphabet soup. Right now, if you want such high-level management, it'll have to be home-grown. You'll have to develop your own diverse management applications and command-line interfaces, and either cobble them together or run them separately on an as-needed basis. Only the large management systems like HP OpenView or CiscoWorks can approach this functionality via a single interface. That's fine if you're running these systems already, but an expensive proposition if you're starting from scratch. Someone in vendor land needs to step up and innovate. Mobile users and wireless networks are going to keep multiplying like rabbits in spring. Only a mobile management system that shows me my mobile network layered on top of my wired infrastructure can help me control both the technology and its associated costs. I need my WLAN manager now.
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