In recent months, wireless networks have received a boost as products based on the 802.11g standard--capable of 54Mbps--have come into the mainstream. Are you ready for fast wireless?
The growth of wireless local area networking (WLAN) technologies is now reaching critical mass. Certainly Intel has put a big marketing push behind wireless networking with its "un-wired" campaign based around its Centrino mobile computing concept.
While security is still a big risk, and the chief concern for many IT managers contemplating a wireless installation, there are more vendors these days actively trying to make wireless security that works. Predominantly in the business side of things, vendors are approaching security either by integrating virtual private networking (VPN) concepts using IPsec-based encrypted connections between the client and the wireless access point (AP) and/or using wireless security gateways.
Certainly as part of this review we will be noting the different types of security provided by these WLAN vendors such as wired equivalency protocol (WEP), network address translation (NAT), and built-in firewalls (packet filtering)
The recent ratification of the 802.11g standard goes a long way to allaying previous bandwidth concerns that many enterprises had about rolling out large scale deployments of these wireless technologies. The 802.11g standard allows up to 54Mbps connections with backward compatibility to the 802.11b standard with both operating at a 2.4GHz frequency. By contrast, the 22-54Mbps 802.11a standard operates in the 5GHz range and is not compatible with 802.11b equipment unless you have a "dual band" 802.11a+b access point.
I have already mentioned the 802.11a, b, and g networking standards, however in recent wireless testing that the Lab has performed for various customers we have found this term "standard" to be very loose when applied to wireless networking. For example when we looked at handheld computers that had integrated WLAN capabilities--we found that two out of the five units submitted for testing refused to connect to our chosen test rig (one saw the AP, but wouldn't connect at all, the other didn't even see it). It was not just the PDAs, we have had different wireless notebooks refuse to interoperate with various brands and models of APs too. So something that we will be placing emphasis on in this review is the interoperability between the brands of access points and cards received from the different vendors.
Belkin 54G Wireless Access PointThe Belkin access point is a futuristically styled two-tone grey plastic unit. The Belkin F5D7010 PCMCIA card is 802.11g compliant and had the largest antenna out of all the cards submitted by vendors of this review -- none of the PCMCIA cards submitted for this review have removable antennas.
The lack of removable antennas can be a slight problem particularly if you rarely use your wireless card, having to always deal with a protrusion from the side of your notebook. This could be a problem if you have limited space in your notebook carry case, it also can easily lead to the card or socket being damaged by being knocked in the wrong way.
It would also be handy to be able to plug an external longer-range antenna into the card and perhaps attach it to the back or top of your notebook's screen for increased distance.
The access point configuration is very straightforward using the popular Web browser interface menu system, so providing you set your local system's IP address and subnet mask to that specified by the manual, you can easily connect to the AP via a standard browser and make all your configuration changes. The only time this type of configuration really gets difficult is when you re-configure the IP address and need to reset and reconfigure your local network settings before re-connecting to the AP again.
The Belkin was the best overall in the three performance tests that we ran. It came in third place when working with the Centrino notebook--it was the top performer up to 15 metres before dropping off. It came in number one when used with the Generic integrated WLAN chip on the other Acer notebook with excellent performance from five to 15 metres and then again from 30 to 50 metres. The Belkin then again came in number one when tested with the 802.11g 3Com PCMCIA card in the Acer notebook, recording excellent performance up to 25 metres.
As a basic 54Mbps access point, should last a while. Performance also was very good.
Excellent value for money.
Lifetime warranty—need we say more?
D-Link DWL-1000AP+ The D-Link AP is in a very sturdy silver plastic enclosure. The D-Link AirPlus DWL-650+ PCMCIA card supplied was 802.11b and b+ compliant. The b+ or "turbo" mode is a proprietary D-Link standard that uses two 802.11b channels to deliver 22Mbps of bandwidth. However, both the access point and the network card need to support this standard in order to work.
Unfortunately the performance of the unit left quite a lot to be desired, coming in last position overall. Under the Centrino notebook testing the D-Link came in second last, it performed poorly from five metres to 10 metres inclusive and by 40 metres the connection dropped out completely. The Linksys also ended the connection at this point, and while the Belkin dropped the connection, it was able to re-establish it at the 45-metre mark. The D-Link came in fourth when used with the generic integrated WLAN and was in fact equal best distance performer with the Sparklan in this test, reaching 65 metres. The 3Com 802.11g test was the worst result for the D-Link AP, having the worst performance right from five metres through 30 metres.
Only a small step up from 802.11b; performance wasn’t as good as some others.
Very expensive when all factors are considered.
Fairly standard three-year warranty
Linksys WAP54G The Linksys AP is moulded in the same style casing as many of the company's other products such as its hubs and routers, which allows the units to be stacked on top of each other. This feature is handy, particularly if you are running external antennas which the Linksys can handle. There is also a wall/ceiling mount kit included in the box with the AP.
The Linksys WPC54G PCMCIA card was 802.11g compliant. The Linksys AP configuration is also via a Web interface.
Overall the Linksys was the second worst performer after the D-Link -- in fact it was very close between the two all the way through.
When testing with the Centrino notebook both the Linksys and D-Link dropped their connections at the 40 metre mark. The generic wireless chip test saw the Linksys come in last place with six slowest consecutive data transfer speeds from the 30-metre mark right through the 55-metre mark. On this test the Linksys, Netcomm, and Belkin all terminated their links at the 60-metre point. The Linksys came in second last, above the D-Link, when tested with the 3Com 802.11g PCMCIA card, recording three slowest speeds from 35 metres through 45 metres.The Linksys also was the only unit on this test to drop the connection at the 50-metre mark.
Supports 802.11g, however some concerns with some device interoperability.
As a 54Mbps access point, should last for a while; some performance concerns.
Good value for money, however performance is not what it should be.
Fairly standard three-year warranty.
Netcomm NP5400 The Netcomm access point is very similar in design and size to the Sparklan unit.
The unit itself stands on its end and has a single removable antenna. However the quality of materials and construction of the Netcomm AP is superior to that of the Sparklan. The Netcomm NP5430 PCMCIA card is 802.11g compliant.
The Netcomm, as with most of the other APs in this review, is configured via a Web browser interface.
The Netcomm came in fourth overall in this test, primarily due to the fact that it refused to interoperate with the Acer Centrino notebook. The test with the generic wireless LAN did little to restore the Netcomm's standing, coming in second last. The Netcomm picked up its act in the last test, with the 3Com 802.11g PCMCIA card, coming in equal second place with the Netgear.
It seems that the Netcomm is possibly better equipped to utilise the 802.11g range, performing very well even at quite long distances.
To top off its impressive feature set, this unit is the only dual-band AP in this review, which means it's capable of 802.11a and 802.11g connectivity. For those companies with a mixture of WLAN devices, the FWAG114 may be worthy of your consideration.
There are two paddle type antennas on the rear of the unit however these are not removable.
The Netgear WG511 PCMCIA card is 802.11g compliant and has a similar sized antenna as the D-Link card. Configuration of the Netgear AP again was handled via a Web browser.
The Netgear came in second place overall behind the Belkin. On the Centrino notebook test, the unit recorded the highest transfer rates overall between the 20-metre and 30-metre points. The Netgear came second place when tested with the generic WLAN card, giving the highest performance at the 15-metre, 25-metre, 50-metre, and 60-metre points, which shows excellent consistency. On the 802.11g 3Com PCMCIA card test, the Netgear collected second place in a draw with the Netcomm. Overall the Netgear is a very consistent performer, and matched with the features would be very hard to go past.
Many features and wide support for connections; good security features.
Excellent value when everything is considered, however purchasers must intend to use all its features to get good ROI.
Fairly standard three-year warranty.
Sparklan WX-1590 Using the same upright, single antenna configuration as the Netcomm, the Sparklan unit is surprisingly powerful.
Included with the unit is a small detachable base, alternatively the unit can be mounted to a wall via the small recessed slots on the rear of the unit, and it has a single removable antenna. The Sparklan WL-311F PCMCIA card supports 802.11b only, as does the access point.
This is the only AP in this review that could not be configured via a Web browser. Instead it is configured via its own proprietary application.
This process was relatively straight forward, certainly no more difficult than the Web browser process. However, it may be annoying for technicians who are used to the more common Web interfaces that most configurable IT applicances now incorporate.
It certainly means that if you are expecting to have to re-configure or change settings regularly on your AP you must ensure that the install/config disc does not go wandering.
This unit certainly surprised us. While not the speediest of the APs tested, it certainly reached the distance and in most cases surpassed many of the more expensive/featured APs here.
Of particular note was the Sparklan's performance when tested with the Centrino notebook. When tested with the Centrino notebook, the Spaklan came up number one with the top transfer rates of the test from the 35-metre to 55-metre points. It also achieved the maximum distance on this test of 55 metres, whereas the next nearest was the Belkin at 45 metres.
The Sparklan AP came in third place when tested with the generic integrated WLAN card--it again however recorded the furthest distance of 65 metres which was equal with the D-Link.
The final test with the 802.11g card saw the Sparklan again finish third and again achieve the furthest distance at 65 metres. As you can see, while not the nimblest of performers, the Sparklan certainly makes up in distance. So if distance with average performance is your goal, it may be worthwhile giving the Sparklan a run.
Interoperability What wireless protocols does the product support, and does it work with other vendors' products?
Will the equipment suit your needs into the future? Does it have useful extra features?
The age-old price, performance, and features; does the product have the goods to justify the cost?
Since these products are based on some proprietary standards, prompt service and a long warranty are vital.
How we tested
We ran several tests for these products;
Interoperability of the access points the vendors supplied and other wireless equipment. This included a Gemtek/Sparklan 802.11b Compact Flash adaptor in a Toshiba e740 PDA, a Toshiba notebook with an integrated Intel Centrino 802.11b wireless network interface card (NIC), and an Acer 650 notebook with a Lan Express integrated 802.1b wireless NIC.
Surprisingly, aside from one problem between the Netgear access point and the CompactFlash card, all the products passed this interoperability test without too much difficulty. Although wireless products are notoriously difficult to interoperate, at least at a basic level this certainly seems to be improving.
Interoperability between a single access point and the PCMCIA cards the vendors supplied. We tried to connect each PC Card the vendors supplied to a Linksys WAP54G access point. All the cards were able to complete this test.
Distance/performance tests. For this test, we measured the data throughput at various distances from the accesss point:
With each vendor's access point (AP) and a 3Com 802.11g PCMCIA card,
With each vendor's AP, using the Acer Travelmate 650 notebook with a Lan Express integrated 802.1b chip, and
This test shows bandwidth at different distances from the access point. [Editor's note: because we couldn't include the full range of test results in this feature, we took an average of the readings at 5, 10, 15, and 20 metres from the accesss point, and for comparison we took the reading at the furthest point from the AP before at least one of the products dropped out. Some products were able to operate past this distance, even to 65 or 70 metres.]
Interoperability, interoperability, interoperability. We can't stress it enough! Please ensure before you buy that your proposed bits of equipment either work with each other as they should and/or work with your existing wireless infrastructure. Also, with the a, b, b+ and g standards, there is bound to be some confusion.
Security. Many enterprises think that WEP is more than enough for their own needs or go by the even scarier "security by obscurity" theory of believing that their wireless installation is inconspicuous, but neither viewpoint is valid any longer. Please review your wireless security policy and practices before they turn around and bite you.
Performance vs environment. Each wireless installation is unique and there are very few identical premises using wireless technology. A true site survey is needed onsite before any contracts are signed or any money is outlaid.
Performance vs interoperability. Hopefully the testing we conducted for this review will allow you to see the differences in performance with the vendors' wireless equipment, not only their own cards with their access points but with other vendors' access points as well.
Company: Tonita Trucking Corp. This business wants to implement a wireless network at its new head office.
Approximate budget:Ã‚Â $500 per access point.
Requires:Ã‚Â Eight wireless access points each to serve approximately 30 users.
Concerns:Ã‚Â At this point, the company only wants to use 802.11b wireless technology, but the ability to upgrade to a faster technology at a later stage is extremely important. The ability to manage the access points remotely, preferably as a group, would be a big plus. Security factors are also a big concern. Interoperability with other vendors devices will also be taken into consideration.
Best solution: The Belkin is clearly the best choice, coming out overall number one for performance across several different wireless tests, and being able to work with 802.11b and 802.11g networks. At less than $300, it is well placed under the budget set.
Although the Belkin access point suits our scenario down to the ground, the Editor's Choice has to go to the Netgear FWAG114. Its amazing array of features--most notably the inclusion of support for a, b, and g wireless protocols--as well as the VPN support make up for its high price tag. In the performance tests, it came second overall which is a very good indication of its total quality.
While the built-in security in the access points may be sufficient for some smaller companies, most larger businesses would probably need a separate product to increase the security of their wireless installations--or at least include wireless as part of their overall security infrastrcuture.
A wireless access point is like a network switch, while a security gateway is like a firewall. If a dedicated security gateway is beyond the resources of your business, then we can only make the same suggestions that we did in the wireless security gateway review. These will enable you to secure most of these APs to the best of their individual capabilities--however you should note that some of the APs reviewed may not support all the methods described here.
Disable the SSID broadcast (if SSID broadcast cannot be disabled then use a space as the SSID)
Enable WEP to the maximum level that your AP will allow (if possible don't use an automatically generated key--create your own and change it regularly).
Enable MAC address filtering allowing only known/registered MAC addresses to connect.
If your AP supports it, use IP authentication.
If possible use either a firewall or VPN tunnel between your wired LAN and wireless LAN so that even if someone attacks your WLAN they still have to get through the VPN authentication or firewall to access your servers and/or Internet bandwidth.
In the months and years to come the wireless scene is sure to hot up, akin to the evolution of wired networks. We are not saying that wireless will ever take over from traditional wired infrastructure, however it will certainly be used to augment it, particularly with the uptake of more mobile computing than ever before. It is certainly an exciting space to watch.
RMIT IT Test Labs is an independent testing institution based in Melbourne, Victoria, performing IT product testing for clients such as IBM, Coles-Myer, and a wide variety of government bodies.
In the Labs' testing for T&B, they are in direct contact with the clients supplying products and the magazine is responsible for the full cost of the testing. The findings are the Labs' own--only the specifications of the products to be tested are provided by the magazine. For more information on RMIT, please contact the Lab Manager, Steven Turvey.