Wireless local area networks (WLANs) have come a long way since the 1990s when the technology was expensive and standards were new.
Much of wireless networking’s success is that it’s more stable, fast and cost-effective today, thanks to mature standards-based equipment. But just as important, network managers now have sophisticated, yet easy-to-use management and monitoring tools at their disposal — and these tools are becoming even better at troubleshooting, measuring performance, and boosting quality and service levels.
“For a period of time, wireless network management for manufacturers was a must-have sideshow,” says Jim Frey, research director with Enterprise Management Associates.
“A lot of the technology needed to mature, and now it has,” he says. “Wireless access points are supported by most of the management tools and brought under the same scrutiny and control as any other network node.”
The tools, available from all the major providers of wireless networking equipment, including Aruba Networks, Cisco Systems and Meru Networks, now have features that let network managers configure, test and monitor performance of access points, as well as enforce policies and compliance across the WLAN. Air quality measurement, known as spectrum analysis, is now becoming an integral part of a WLAN, as opposed to a separate, manual tool.
NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center has a wireless LAN that runs through more than 50 buildings at its main headquarters in Greenbelt, Md., and at its Wallops Flight Facility on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. The network — which is used for administrative purposes only, such as e-mail and general Internet access — supports thousands of NASA staff members who work in those two facilities.
“The wireless network was designed to meet user requirements. They want to be mobile, to be able to go into another office or conference room or another facility and check e-mail or bring up a PowerPoint presentation without having to plug into anything,” says Steve Beitzell, a contract network engineer at Goddard.
The network has about 360 Cisco access points, most of which support the 802.11 b/g specification. Beitzell says he is in the final stages of testing newer equipment that includes Cisco controllers and support for 802.11n.
He leverages several management tools, including those offered by Cisco, as well as other network monitoring software. “This gives us a quick, front-end look, a snapshot in time, of who is generating the most traffic, or whether an access point is overflowing. We can then determine if we need to add another access point, or reconfigure things.”
Beitzell and his colleagues also leverage a stand-alone spectrum analyzer they plug into their notebooks to investigate interference. But he says he is interested in trying Cisco’s CleanAir technology as Goddard upgrades its existing wireless LAN.
The range that 802.11n wireless devices can cover in a home, office or outdoors
Source: Wi-Fi Alliance
Strict Wireless Policies
Not all federal government agencies are implementing and using wireless LANs for their internal business operations. Some have well-entrenched and viable wired networks that don’t need replacing, while others have strict security policies that usurp wireless LAN initiatives. Such is the case with the Department of Defense’s Defense Information Systems Agency, a combat support agency responsible for providing the network, computing infrastructure and enterprise services to support information sharing and decision-making no matter where the information is located or sourced.
“For internal usage, we don’t generally allow wireless LANs,” says Henry Sienkiewicz, DISA’s CIO. “For DISA, due to a whole series of security issues, our preference is to use a wired facility.”
However, the agency does believe in technologies that support workers, and that includes wireless and remote access for users who may be offsite. Every notebook issued to a DISA staff member is equipped with a wireless interface card and a virtual private network client. The wireless network, managed by a service provider, lets staff use a secure Internet connection to access DISA’s IT resources and assets.
The endpoints of the wireless network — the VPN router at DISA’s facility and the wireless cards and VPN clients on the notebooks — are managed by DISA.
“We use standard industry best practices to ensure we provide our users quality networking,” says Sienkiewicz. DISA uses a commercial, off-the-shelf toolset to manage the VPN router, and that toolset is also integrated into DISA’s comprehensive network and systems management solution.
“Fundamentally, we firmly believe we have to have insights into the health, welfare and performance characteristics of our networks and systems. These tools allow us the capability to monitor that the people trying to gain access, and also those who have gained access, are getting the appropriate networking experience. We want the end-user experience to be excellent, just as any other corporation or organization does.”