The wacky and insecure world of wi-fi

There's more to installing it than meets the eye, says James E Gaskin

In honour of the 802.11n wi-fi standard getting close to arriving after wandering through the desert for 40 years, let's look at wireless. Our focus here is on helping you wi-fi better, even if it means doing less wi-fi.

You are forgiven if you thought 802.11n, the latest tag on wireless routers, was already an official standard. Not yet, although the wi-fi manufacturers got so tired of waiting for the 802.11n group they created their own "draft standard" and coerced different vendors to work together on a pre-standard standard.

Wi-fi standards have always been wonky. First came 802.11b, then 802.11a, then 802.11g, and now, years later, 802.11n. This only proves wi-fi committee members don't know "shinola" about the alphabet. (Wimax, the 802.16 wireless family, will be ignored for now, because we are talking about wi-fi support inside your business, not over long distances outside.)

My first guideline for wi-fi implementations for small businesses is don't wi-fi if you can avoid it. Wireless connections are always slower and less secure than wired connections. Automatically eliminate the idea of wi-fi for all desktop computers and laptops purchased as desktop replacements. If your laptop has a docking station, it should use a wired connection just like the desktop computer it replaced.

Of course, that will upset the wi-fi fanatics because they want to carry laptops to meetings for "increased productivity". In every group meeting I've been in this past year, half the people with open laptops have been checking email and Facebook during the meeting. That is not productive, it is destructive. Even when companies pay me to be in meetings, I want the meetings to be as short as possible. Wi-fi in the meeting room just enables some attendees to entertain themselves, instead of participating in the meeting. I wish I had one of those wi-fi blocking devices for the next meeting I have to go to.

Now the productivity experts are upset. Wi-fi fanatics spout the productivity mantra at every opportunity, yet I have never seen hard numbers on how wi-fi access in the company restrooms helps the company make more money. I am not sure checking Facebook while walking around with your laptop is productivity the company will appreciate.

Devices that stay put don't need wireless. The Epson WorkForce 600 multi-function printer I have been testing has wireless support, but I am not sure why. Who carries a printer around? How does that help productivity?

That said, your wi-fi world will change when 802.11n actually arrives. If you're still using the same wi-fi routers and access points you bought five or more years ago, an upgrade is in your future. Five-year-old wi-fi, especially if your access point is bundled inside your primary router, needs to be updated for security reasons. You'll also appreciate the performance boost of newer wi-fi hardware.

My second guideline for better wi-fi is to use equipment from the same vendor for all your wireless needs. Smaller companies can get by with a single router or wireless access point, so vendor compatibility isn't an issue. When you expand and need a second access point, buy from the same vendor. If that vendor has disappeared, buy two new access points from a single vendor. It is time to update your wireless if your vendor has had time to go out of business since your installation.

Third, the easiest way to improve your wi-fi is to upgrade the antennas on your routers and access points. You can even get longer antennas for consumer wireless hardware and they are worth the money. The better your antenna, the better your reception. Better reception means faster throughput and fewer access points.

Ask your wireless supplier about a Yagi antenna if your physical location is an unusual shape. Yagi antennas add distance by directing signals where you point them. Do you have a long, spaghetti-shaped warehouse? One access point with a Yagi antenna may do a better job than two or three omni-directional access points. You save money on access points and can better control where your wireless signals go. Signals that go outside your building make it easier for hackers to access your systems.

Fourth, you no longer need to worry about lobby wireless networks, or guest networks for visitors. When wi-fi became popular, vendors pushed a second network, separate from your internal network, for visitors as they waited in the lobby or in meeting areas. Today, road warriors will have 3G mobile broadband support, so you can drop the cost and complexity of a lobby network.

Finally, define your security measures during your wi-fi planning, not after, because wi-fi demands stricter internal security. Plans that focus on a strong firewall and protections at your router don't stop intruders that float through the walls on your wi-fi signals. With wi-fi as a major portion of your network, individual computer protection becomes mandatory.

How your clients access and authenticate to your wireless network can make or break your security. Wireless access points that broadcast the SSID (Service Set Identifier) to make them easier to locate, also invite outsiders to try and connect to your network. Configure your wireless clients to automatically connect to your network and don't advertise the name.

Be careful of "rogue access points" that appear thanks to clueless employees. These are consumer wireless routers employees buy and plug in themselves without "bothering" the IT folks with the details. Security configuration? None. Security headaches? Many. Check for strange networks that appear when you do a "find networks" scan, then hunt down those employees and confiscate those rogue access points.

Already suspect, wi-fi security got another black eye recently when Japanese researchers revealed they had hacked WPA (wi-fi Protected Access) encrypted traffic in less than one minute. Now the only secure option is WPA 2. All wireless hardware made since March 2006 supports WPA 2, another reason to upgrade your wi-fi hardware soon.

Is wi-fi handy? Absolutely. Does it make networking possible in places you can't run wires, like historic buildings or big open spaces? Absolutely. But, as always, convenience comes at a cost and that is the case when using wi-fi.

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