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Until recently, the complexity of installing and managing wireless LANs put them out of the reach of some small businesses. This was especially true for those businesses that lacked significant in-house IT expertise.
Fortunately, it’s a different world now. Today, a small business with limited or no IT staff can have a WLAN configured and managed remotely, using cloud computing technology with internal resources or through third-party service providers.
Couple this increased accessibility with staff productivity boosts, easier connections for multiple types of devices, faster and affordable implementation and a flexible infrastructure, and it’s easy to see why small businesses are warming up to WLANs.
The extension of wireless management to the cloud is one of the more telling indicators that wireless is close to parity with wired infrastructure. When computing or networking platforms operate in the cloud, much of the intelligence and management capability lives in remote network operations or a data center.
That means a third party can take ownership for the maintenance and reliability of that equipment as a service, if the small business chooses to go that route. Cloud computing has become been widely used for storage and server capacity, but is just now moving into the wireless space.
With cloud-based management, “I can see all my equipment, statistics, reports and activity, and I can push updates to all my access points [APs] simultaneously,” says Mike Friedman, director of technology at YBH of Passaic-Hillel, a secondary school with a curriculum that includes religion and culture as well as general education.
YBH, located in Passaic, N.J., uses cloud-based wireless technology from D-Link and PowerCloud Systems. “It beats the heck out of having to go to individual access points if I need to change,” Friedman adds. He is currently using D-Link’s CloudCommand to centrally manage 15 wireless access points.
Other WLAN advances that favor small businesses include:
To understand the networking needs of small business, it’s important to also understand the significant differences between a business with 100 or fewer employees and large enterprises that are further up the technology adoption curve.
“A lot of small businesses work in an atypical environment in terms of how offices are set up,” says Kelly Davis-Felner, marketing director for the Wi-Fi Alliance trade organization. “They may operate in an old fire station or a schoolhouse, or a small law firm may operate out of a home.” For its ease in changing office configurations, as well as moving workstations or employees, the flexibility of wireless is a very compelling advantage for small businesses.
However, the size of a business and the nature of its facilities don’t alter the need to provide robust connectivity, especially when data being accessed over the network affects customer service or other core business functions. In that sense, small businesses are no different than large enterprises.
“If you’re going to use wireless to provide any kind of customer service, it needs to always work, especially as more and more things live in CRM [customer relationship management] systems, whether onsite or offsite,” says Rick Moran, vice president of small business marketing for Cisco Systems. “When a customer calls in, you can’t say, ‘Can you call back because we can’t access your records.’”
The average performance rate for 802.11n routers, access points and clients is 300 megabits per second — three times faster than wired Fast Ethernet, and up to 10 times faster than 802.11g and 802.11a.
Earlier generations of wireless technology were somewhat limited in speed and performance, especially when compared with wired networks. But the current 802.11n standard supports theoretical speeds up to 600Mbps and can operate in two different frequencies: 2.4GHz and 5GHz.
The latter capability means greater performance. “For slightly more sophisticated small business users, having a dual-band environment means they can put data on one band, and use another one for advanced applications such as multimedia, where they really want to protect those transmissions,” says Davis-Felner. “You get a lot more juice from the radish with 11n.”
802.11n’s superior performance is the result of multiple-input, multiple-output (MIMO) technology. It uses multiple radios and antennas (called radio chains), spatial multiplexing and channel bonding to transmit multiple data streams on the same frequency.
The Wi-Fi Alliance began certifying 802.11n products in 2007. In 2011, the vast majority of gear that ships will support the N standard. More 802.11n enhancements are on the way to further increase performance.
One factor helping to advance wireless technology to support critical business applications is its ability to be managed in the cloud.
To enable cloud-based wireless, a manufacturer or service provider operates a network operations center (NOC) with the servers and management technology necessary to manage wireless infrastructure on a large scale. That eliminates the need for a small business to make capital outlays in servers and management equipment.
It also requires that onsite wireless gear be enabled for remote management. One way to do this is through firmware upgrades.
One key payoff for small business is the cost and budgeting ramifications of the service-based model. “It’s a way to manage your operational expenses differently,” says Paul DeBeasi, research vice president, wireless and mobility, at Gartner. “So rather than buying everything and paying all capital costs upfront, as well as staff and overhead, you have operational costs that are a monthly fee.” That’s a critical benefit for small businesses, particularly those in start-up mode that have to watch every expenditure.
“A small business may choose to manage wireless in the cloud on an internal basis,” explains Ken Lloyd, director of product marketing for D-Link Systems. “They can also hire a third party, such as a value-added reseller, to manage that function.”
The cloud, however, isn’t the only form of centralized management that’s available to small businesses. Increasingly, the manufacturer community is delivering technology aimed at allowing wireless configurations to be conducted on a centralized basis, so that each access point doesn’t need to be set up individually, which is a repetitive and error-prone undertaking.
“The vast majority of small businesses are still putting out individual access points, requiring that they go to each AP and put in parameters one by one,” says Peter Newton, director of product management in the commercial products group at wireless supplier NETGEAR. Enterprise-class products for centralized wireless management are typically too complex and expensive for small businesses, he notes.
NETGEAR is delivering wireless management software that allows the centralized configuration for up to five APs with a single command. “It goes out to find the access points. IT then enters the wireless settings and pushes out those settings to all the APs,” Newton says.
“We’re reducing the workload down to 30 percent or less depending on the number of APs,” he adds. The centralized approach also reduces errors introduced by miskeying configuration data.
In the early years of wireless LANs (which first hit the market 20 or so years ago) and continuing until recently, there were lingering concerns about the security of the technology. That’s because WLANs broadcast information using radio technology, and those transmissions could be intercepted in the absence of security precautions. Horror stories of hackers “war driving” around streets seeking open, vulnerable Wi-Fi hot spots were rampant.
Today, there’s greater knowledge of how to lock down WLANs and more robust security protocols built into wireless products. The greater knowledge, in part, is an outgrowth of the prevalence of WLANs in people’s homes, and their strong desire to have similar wireless capability, and security, where they work.
“If you’re a small business owner and you don’t do something about wireless, people will buy it, shove it into conference rooms and light it up, which can open your business up to a security hole,” Cisco’s Moran says. And it’s not just their employees that small businesses must satisfy with wireless; they’re increasingly offering the service to their customers. Indeed, Moran recounted a recent visit to a doctor’s office where wireless was available in the patient waiting area.
In those environments where wireless is available at large, experts advise clearly delineating between applications for employees and customers. Separate networks or virtual networks should be established for different types of data traffic, different applications and different users to maximize the security of each app.
The current generation of wireless products comes with multiple security protocols from which small businesses can choose. A popular choice because of its strength is Wi-Fi Protected Access 2 (WPA2), which provides government-grade security through its support of the Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) encryption algorithm.
Experts say there have been no reported instances in which WPA2 has been compromised, but they urge a proactive approach to security. Proactive steps that can be taken include building a list of approved systems that can access the wireless infrastructure, known as an access control list. “A centralized controller is where you build that list,” says NETGEAR’s Newton.
Administrators can also actively choose not to broadcast the service set identifier (SSID) or identifier of the wireless network. This ensures it’s not visible to anyone other than those who have access rights, Newton adds.