The Move to Managed Access Points

By Adam Stone

December 24, 2002

The use of gateway devices that let administrators manage the vital action taking place in wireless LAN access points may be an unavoidable trend for Wi-Fi enterprise networks in the coming months.

The good news is that access points are cheap and plentiful. The bad news is that it's a free-for-all out there. In a campus setting, each access point is a universe unto itself, with authentication and bandwidth management practically up for grabs.

With wireless LAN gaining greater traction in the enterprise world, analysts say the time may be ripe for the adoption of a family of products known as gateway devices. These devices manage the vital action going at an access point, giving a network operator a simplified way to control access and security issues, along with the ability to manage bandwidth allotment.

"That's where the industry is going, with access points connected to these centralized gateways," predicted John Chang, senior analyst at Allied Business Intelligence.

As project manager for IT security at the government's General Accounting Office, Sonny Nguyen has begun to use gateway devices to better manage access points spread throughout a six-story building and accessible by some 32,000 users. The way he figures it, he simply had to do something. "When we first deployed wireless, we did not have a means to authenticate people and to provide encryption," he explained.

Now Nguyen has a gateway device operating on each of the six floors. "It provides us the capability to allocate bandwidth, to allocate services, and to impose restrictions on what [users] are allowed to see on the network. Without this device, once you log in you are allowed to see everything. So it gives us a greater degree of granularity in terms of what we can control," he explained.

A number of vendors are angling for space in the gateway market, including ReefEdge, Nomadix and Bluesocket, to name a few. Each already lays claim to widespread deployments, but analysts say those deployments have by and large taken place within the institutional market, rather than in the enterprise market.

"They have done pretty well in education and healthcare, which are the two main areas of growth right now," said Gemma Paulo, a senior analyst at In-Stat/MDR. She notes that those markets are by nature somewhat limited, and suggests that for gateway products to really take off, they will need to make the leap into the enterprise market.

For that to happen, businesses will need to start investing in technology again. Once they do, though, "I think we definitely will see more high-end rollouts" of wireless gateways, she said.

That's what folks like Patrick Rafter are counting on.

As spokesman for Bluesocket, Rafter is quick to point out present successes -- more than 200 devices deployed in universities right now -- but it is clear that Bluesocket also is positioning itself to make a major move on the enterprise side. Rafter notes for instance that his firm's product is access-point agnostic -- something that always sounds a sweet note for corporate IT managers looking to make long-term investments.

"So here is a single box that somebody can install in an hour. Then as changes happen in the market we can update the software via the Web, so we can improve the technology on an ongoing basis," said Rafter.

Other firms are coming at the gateway market from a different angle. Nomadix for example is pitching its management devices as an ideal solution in the public-access space. Because Nomadix devices handle not just authentication and bandwidth allocation but also billing information, they can be a valuable tool for a public-access provider, said company spokesman John DiGiovanni.

As a service provider, "you don't want to force your customers to make any changes to what they ordinarily do, in order to use your service," he said. "You want to support as many authentication and billing models and possible."

The easiest way to do that, he suggests, is with a third-party solution such as a Nomadix gateway.

Nguyen meanwhile is exploring a further usefulness of the gateway device. In the near future, he said, he expects to enable the roaming functionality of these devices so that users can go from floor to floor without having to re-authenticate themselves each time. In the meantime, he said, the devices already have proven a tremendous time- and labor-saving tool.

"Even if you had enough administrators to do [authentication and bandwidth management] at the server level, it would take an awful lot of work, and you would have to do it at every server," he said. With the gateway solution, "you can do it easily through a single device."



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