WI-FI To Get Security, Management Boost

Vendors make products based on the standard easier to use in the office and away
Consumers have been quick to adopt Wireless Fidelity, the high-speed networking technology. But businesses have been slow to buy it because of security, management, and quality-of-service concerns. Several major vendors are launching efforts to overcome those roadblocks.

Cisco Systems last week unveiled the Cisco Compatible Extensions program, under which it will license its wireless technology for free to a select group of vendors and certify that their products are compatible with Cisco's Aironet wireless LAN product line. IPass Inc., a fixed and mobile VPN software provider, will disclose plans this week to sell Wi-Fi service from Cometa Networks, a company backed by AT&T, IBM, and Intel that's building wholesale Wi-Fi public hot spots nationwide. Also, Intel next week plans to launch its Centrino product line, which will include chips that are compliant with 802.11, the standard behind Wi-Fi and wireless LANs.

Key standards organizations such as the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and the Wi-Fi Alliance are working to improve the wireless technology. But neither has business customers as their main focus, nor do they move quickly enough to address the problems, members of the Cisco program say.

Cisco hopes to change that by teaming with wireless LAN vendors Agere Systems, Atheros, Atmel, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Intel, Marvell, and Texas Instruments. Collectively, the silicon vendors supply up to 90% of wireless LAN components and products, including technology used in notebooks, desktops, PDAs, cellular phones, and PC Cards. Their goal is to build wireless technology into a variety of mobile devices, such as HP notebooks and IBM ThinkPads, that will be compatible with Cisco's wireless LAN products and eliminate the need to use wireless modem cards. The approach should make it easier for Cisco's customers to piece together secure, easily managed wireless LAN systems that cover everything from user devices to corporate networks.

Sharp Healthcare, a health-care provider with $1.1 billion in annual revenue, recently installed Cisco's Aironet products so its clerical staff can use wireless handheld devices from HP. But to use Cisco's Leap technology, which provides user authentication and centralized security management, Sharp's IT staff must install Cisco cards in the devices. "We got a little hamstrung," says Bill Spooner, Sharp's senior VP and CIO. When Cisco's technology is built into devices, "we won't have to add the card," he says. "As more manufacturers are licensed, we'll have more flexibility in the devices we select."

That will come in handy as Sharp rolls out a new system in the next year that will give physicians wireless access to patient and drug data. "Some want to use the devices at patients' bedsides, others at nursing stations," Spooner says, "so we need to be flexible."

IPass also hopes to better serve its customers with expanded Wi-Fi coverage through its Cometa partnership. Software vendor J.D. Edwards & Co., which uses iPass' remote-access VPN service over dial-up lines and Wi-Fi systems in hotels and airports, welcomes the broader coverage. But it may face a cost issue. J.D. Edwards now pays a per-hour fee for dial-up access and a per-day fee for Wi-Fi. "If a salesperson is doing a presentation, then it's worthwhile," says Ken Migaki, VP of infrastructure services. "But just to check E-mail, it's expensive."

Now it's up to users to decide whether to use Wi-Fi or dial-up. But Migaki may have to impose restrictions in the future to control costs. Alternatively, in an effort to get better prices, he could review J.D. Edwards' contract with iPass. "I'd prefer not to put controls in place," he says, "because Wi-Fi is a great advantage."

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