Wireless security 2008

Back in January of 2005, Dell’Oro Group predicted that the wireless LAN (WLAN) market would grow to $4.3 billion by 2009. In early 2007, CRN reported that the market had surpassed $3.6 billion in 2006. If all that is true, the 2009 numbers will be reached by the beginning of 2008 or a little after. The vendors are promoting wireless connectivity very heavily as a replacement – not an alternative – to wired networks. Cisco has made huge investments in development and acquisition as an example of this market growth.

The new 802.11n standard, though hotly debated, is likely to play a major part in driving the WLAN market as well. Virtually all of the products we tested support 802.11n one way or another.

The products we looked at are a somewhat reduced batch from those we reviewed last year. However, what is interesting about these is that three of the five products are new to our labs. The products all are part of larger integrated systems. In one case, endpoint security can be added. And, one product, especially, appears in different guises in both our Group Test reviews. This points to a convergence of functionality that includes both wired and wireless security.

What 802.11n will mean — The key advantage of 802.11n is speed. The top speed is 248Mbit/s, as opposed to 54Mbit/s for 802.11g. This gives an average expected throughput of 74Mbit/s, far faster than 802.11g’s average 19Mbit/s. One way 802.11n achieves higher throughput is via the use of multiple input/multiple output (MIMO) technology. This requires multiple transmitter and receiver antennas. It also requires aggregation in the medium access controller in the physical layer. Range for 802.11n access points also improves to about double that of 802.11g. The standard is not without problems, however.

The problem with 802.11n has nothing to do with technology. Rather, it rests in a patent battle. The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) holds the patent and has so far refused to provide the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) with a letter of assurance that they won’t sue over patent infringement. This has not stopped most vendors from betting on an eventual solution to the apparent impasse.

How to buy wireless security products — One major difference between last year’s review and this year’s is the improved forensics availability. Tracing wireless events with forensic certainty is beginning to reach maturity. Be sure that the product you are considering has solid tracing and reporting capability and supports emerging wireless security requirements.

Most of the products we looked at do most of the things you’ll need. The devil is in the details.
Testing a wireless security system — Testing a wireless security system is not much different from testing any intrusion detection/ prevention system (IDS/IPS). Use the usual vulnerability assessment and penetration tools and treat it exactly as you would a wired network. However, once those tests are complete, the next set of tests is unique to a wireless network. These include rogue access point detection, attempting to break encryption, and attempting to reconfigure access points. Rogue access point detection has two important facets. First, can the system detect the existence of a rogue access point (AP)? Second, can it detect the location of the AP?

Testing wireless security systems is critical and should be done regularly. A wireless security product that cannot detect a rogue access point, for example, is not particularly useful. However, just because the AP can be detected, you still don’t know where it is. Thus, a good wireless security product should be able to tell if the AP is on your network and where it is.

What we found in this batch of products — Overall, this was a good bunch of wireless security tools. Generally, they all provided core functionality. However, not all have robust AP location capability, and some product’s reporting is better than others. These products tend not to be expensive, so cost should not be a factor in deciding to implement wireless security. The differences between having exactly what you need and “making do,” however, are not large enough to prevent you from buying exactly the product that will support your infrastructure.

Remember, as your enterprise approaches the 80 percent wireless predicted by some mavens, what you spend on protection is trivial compared to the potential risk of opening up your company network to enterprising attackers.

Mike Stephenson and John Aitken contributed to these reviews.

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