The right network

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The right network
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Now that we have the Ethernet juggernaut out of the way, we can turn our attention to the rock and roll side of networking: wireless. If you were to read a business technology primer five years ago, or even two years ago, you’d be pressed to find a strong recommendation to deploy a wireless network. The reason behind the cautious stance was simple: poor security, instability and flaky transfer rates made it inappropriate for businesses. These days, however, such wariness is no longer justified, thanks to new business-friendly security and the imminent ratification of a brand new standard.

The prime security concern with wireless is due to its transmission medium -- sending packets through the air makes them available to anyone in range. In order secure the network, or ‘lock it down’, there are numerous methods of controlling access, but not all are considered equal. The simplest security method involves only granting access to devices with an accepted MAC address. As every networking device has a unique MAC address, wireless networks can ‘filter’ out the notebooks and PCs that don’t have an authorised address.

Unfortunately, MAC addresses can be easily detected by observing the data flowing over a network. A malicious user can then mimic the authorised MAC addresses and gain access to the network. To get around this, various types of encryption exist to complement or replace simple MAC filtering. The first is WEP, a relatively slow and easily-broken standard, which has now largely been superseded by WPA and WPA2. WPA is now considered the minimum in wireless security, and larger businesses may want to look at installing authentication servers alongside the encryption, which allows for additional functions like account profiles and usage logs.

With wireless security under control, the next consideration is speed. Early versions of Wi-Fi like 802.11a, b and g, were decidedly underwhelming in the amount of data they could pass through – 802.11g had a theoretical maximum of 54Mb/s, though its average speed could be less than half that. When you throw in other variables like obstacles and interference, you have a network connection that’s only appropriate for basic tasks like office work, Web browsing and email.

The upcoming 802.11n standard is the first real contender for high-speed wireless. Unfortunately, despite being in development for three years, the standard still hasn’t been certified. Any 802.11n products on the market are based on draft revisions of the standard, and consequently may not represent the final product. For this reason, businesses requiring a large wireless deployment should stick to 802.11g. Smaller businesses wanting to experiment with 802.11n should buy all equipment from the same vendor to ensure maximum interoperability.

As you make the decision to deploy a wired or wireless network, you might find yourself in a particular situation where neither option is suitable. For these situations, you could find powerline networking your best option. It’s not as fast as regular twisted pair Fast Ethernet, but using the existing power cabling in an office or apartment could save money on installation costs, or it could help extend your network to reach into places just outside your wireless range.

In the end, it’s somewhat naive to suggest that you need to choose one technology over the other. Instead, you’ll likely find that your business will require a combination of wired, wireless and powerline networks. Whatever you choose, understanding where each technology fits is the difference between a safe, efficient and reliable network, and one that’s flaky, insecure and costly to maintain.
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