Still worried about wireless

Worried about your wireless network these days? Probably not. In 2002-03, you lost sleep over whether your wireless LAN access points were leaking information to warchalkers or competitors. Now security has been improved by more powerful encryption capabilities in the network. Rogue access points are under control. So you think you can put those wireless anxieties on the back burner? Well, swallow some more Pepcid -- it's time to worry again.

Worry No. 1: security (still). Sure, you secured your WLAN on the corporate campus, and maybe even your branch offices have been locked tight. But what about my house and the millions of other home offices that use 802.11x technology? We're as insecure as ever.

Not that any hacker or practitioner of corporate espionage cares a whit about the keystrokes of an ink-stained wretch like me, but I bet your most talented developers -- as well as your contract programmers, staff lawyers, product managers and C-level executives -- use Wi-Fi technology in their homes. And I'm pretty certain your security team hasn't audited those networks to ensure that they're as hacker-resistant as your corporate LAN.

One of your 2004 projects should be to write up a list of key home workers and then drop by their houses for coffee. While there, secure those home networks.

Worry No. 2: compliance. Most CIOs are working hard on compliance issues to ensure that their CEOs and CFOs won't be asking Martha Stewart for tips on decorating their prison cells. You need to include wireless devices in that compliance process.

For example, if you're sending sensitive data to users with, say, a BlackBerry or Treo device, you need to make sure that relevant, auditable business processes can be applied to that device.

As instant messaging becomes more widely used on mobile devices for business, it will require tighter management and controls for competitive and compliance reasons. Companies like FaceTime Communications in Foster City, Calif., and IMlogic in Waltham, Mass., offer products that let you apply business process rules to every message. Keywords and phrases can be used to manage content in incoming and outgoing messages. Don't deploy corporate IM -- wireless or otherwise -- without considering compliance implications.

Worry No. 3: upgrades. Yes, I know, you just finished the big wireless rollout for your inventory operations or your branch offices. But there's new technology on the way that will make upgrading a compelling idea. Multiple-input-multiple-output (MIMO) technology promises wireless network performance at about 100Mbit/sec. And just three years ago, we thought 2Mbit/sec. wireless networks were the coolest.

A MIMO-enabled sending device uses two powerful radio frequency antennas to split its data transmissions. By using two streams of data and recombining them at the receiving end, it's possible to get better performance and higher capacity. MIMO chip sets are available now and are expected to start appearing in products late this year or early next. Soon thereafter, I expect you'll be replacing a lot of wireless gear because the speed is vastly better than what you have with today's 802.11 devices. Vendors claim MIMO is backward-compatible with previous releases of 802.11a/b/g products, which will make the swap-outs a little less painful.

Worry No. 4: health. Periodically, end users become concerned about how RF technology affects their health. There are stories about cell-phone-addicted real estate agents who developed brain cancer for instance. And environmentalists have recently persuaded the U.S. Navy to alter its testing of extremely low-frequency communications systems because of their demonstrated deleterious effects on whales.

Technology like MIMO, which uses more powerful RF signals to achieve the higher performance, is likely to be a lightning rod for end-user health concerns. Naturally, the industry will offer knee-jerk claims that everything it ships is safe. True or not, those claims will be doubted by more than a few concerned individuals. But it's wise to bone up on any health issues surrounding RF, if only to set your users' minds at ease. In fact, when you roll out these advanced wireless systems, it's probably wise to include an analysis on the safety of RF.

So, while wireless systems are maturing quickly and proving themselves reliable and useful, they aren't becoming worry-free.

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