Proposed Standard Aims to Manage Wi-Fi Clients

By Ed Sutherland

December 29, 2005

In the future, 802.11v may be the answer to enterprise problems with securely configuring laptops and phones.

Until recently, when companies talked of managing Wi-Fi networks, discussion centered on controlling the infrastructure – the access points and switches at the heart of an enterprise WLAN. A relatively new industry proposal  -- 802.11v -- aims to broaden Wi-Fi management to include the growing number of laptops, PDAs and IP phones  connecting to your company’s network.

The IEEE began work on 802.11v in early 2005. While final approval by the standards body isn’t expected until 2008, draft proposals likely will begin circulating relatively soon.

The problem 802.11v hopes to ease is managing and configuring the many devices carried by employees, executives, clients, contractors and visitors. Daily, we read of Wi-Fi’s increasing adoption by enterprises. There is similar good news for VoIP, even for VoIP over wireless (or VoWi-Fi). While Wi-Fi’s popularity is welcomed by some, it is feared by others.

“Clients are petrified because of the growth of Wi-Fi,” says Greg Murphy, chief operating officer at AirWave Wireless. The company sells wireless management software.

Key factors to calming some of those fears might be a more intelligent method for balancing the load wireless clients place on Wi-Fi networks, along with an easier way to configure the myriad devices. Both are core issues for the proposed management standard.

A Better Balancing Act?

Currently, load balancing is accomplished by either preventing a client from connecting to an access point or terminating an existing Wi-Fi session. Load balancing would become more transparent with 11v. For instance, to avoid congestion by too many clients connecting to one access point, 802.11v would route clients to another access point with greater available resources.

Improved load balancing could improve enterprise use of wireless VoIP. Some Wi-Fi switch vendors, such as Meru, simply give IP callers a ‘busy’ signal if a call exceeds a network’s capacity.

“11v will make VoIP a reality,” says Paul Grey, vice president of engineering at AirWave. “You need 11v to get there."

Curing Configuration Blues

When a network problem occurs, determining whether the cause is the network infrastructure or behavior by a client device is often a shot in the dark. “Troubleshooting is currently a process of elimination,” says Grey.

Configuration of clients now is a time-consuming process for large organizations. Service Set Identifiers (SSIDs), security settings, data rates and power management — all now manually configured on a laptop or phone — could be adjusted automatically using the network infrastructure.

11v would also reduce the amount of management traffic traversing Wi-Fi APs, lowering the power demands of network equipment.

For Wendy’s restaurants, a recent AirWave customer, such automation is important. “For Wendy’s, diagnostics is a huge issue,” says Murphy.  He believes that adoption of 11v “will create a wildfire in the enterprise."

Bypassing Proprietary Management?

If 802.11v is to succeed, it must be implemented both by makers of PC cards and controller/switch developers. Everyone seems to agree that 802.11v can be instituted through a software patch. “Upgrades will be done through firmware,” agrees Grey.

However, centralized switch competitors Trapeze and Meru can’t help some sniping.

“Vendors that have designed their systems based on traditional designs will have to architecturally alter their systems,” says Joe Epstein, Meru’s chief architect. “It will require wholesale software changes,” Epstein claims.

Meru, which says it has proposed elements of the 802.11v proposal, believes enterprise wireless networks will benefit from “an 802.11v-like standard.”

“No hardware upgrades will be needed,” according to published statements from Trapeze.

AirWave’s Grey, also involved in 802.11k, another Wi-Fi management standard, says 11v will be implemented at Layer 2 of the network. With 802.11v, customers won’t need proprietary software, he says.

This means enterprises no longer would need to unify behind one vendor’s management product. Does this mean Meru and Trapeze gear could co-exist? Meru tentatively agrees, but only time will tell.



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