Vocera Pumps Up Wireless Security

By Vikki Lipset

October 21, 2003

The latest release of the company's voice over Wi-Fi system includes support for additional security protocols and a slew of new features.

Vocera Communications, the company behind the Star Trek-like voice over Wi-Fi badges, on Tuesday released a new version of its software that beefs up wireless security and adds several new features such as voice-initiated paging, urgent calling and support for digital telephony.

The Cupertino, Calif.-based company's Communications Badges work over 802.11b wireless networks, and allow workers to make calls using voice commands. The wearable devices have proven particularly popular in hospitals and schools.

Version 2.0 of the Vocera System Software includes features aimed at increasing productivity for both end users and network administrators, according to Debashis Pramanik, a senior product manager at Vocera. "We've really tried to address our customers' ongoing needs and make significant improvements in those areas," he said.

One of those key areas was security. The software currently supports the 64-bit wired equivalent privacy (WEP) and 128-bit WEP protocols, as well as virtual LANs (VLAN). However, Pramanik said many customers deemed those insufficient, so Vocera added support for Cisco's lightweight extensible authentication protocol (LEAP) and temporal key integrity protocol (TKIP). In addition, the company will be releasing support for Wi-Fi protected access (WPA) in about eight weeks.

"This will meet the majority of the needs of our customers that are very concerned about overall security and want very strong authentication and encryption," said Pramanik.

Tighter security means slightly slower handoffs, though. "It's higher level authentication and encryption, so it requires a little longer to associate when you get to a new AP," he conceded. However, he said, "it's still very subtle. At most you might hear a click or two, but the conversation continues. There are no dropped calls, there's no significant loss of packets or any dead airtime."

Other improvements on the back-end include support for digital telephony and hardware fault tolerance. Digital telephony offers faster call setup and better audio quality, Pramanik said. And with PBX integration available through digital interfaces as well as analog, customers get more ports for their money.

To take advantage of the digital telephony support, which Vocera is offering as a separate option (meaning there is an additional cost associated with it), customers will need either a T1 or primary rate ISDN (PRI) line.

In response to customer requests for redundancy and high availability, Vocera also added support for hardware fault tolerance in the new release. This means that if the primary server goes down, a second server, or cluster, becomes active so that the Vocera software keeps running. "It keeps the critical communications going," Pramanik said.

To make life easier for network administrators, version 2.0 introduces group permissions and remote system administration. Administrators can now assign permissions on a group basis, and permit group managers to administer permissions for their groups, as well as add and remove members from their groups, themselves. "This means that a single administrator doesn't need to worry about subtle changes to group memberships and group permissions on an ongoing basis," Pramanik explained. "It can be done locally."

Remote system administration allows system administrators, to, well, administer remotely. "Things like backups, e-mail logging ..., loading of automatic user profiles, as well as starting and stopping the server, no longer have to be done locally at the server," he said.

Vocera also made numerous enhancements on the front end. Chief among these is what Pramanik referred to as "voice initiated paging." This allows a user to page someone outside of their network, and the recipient to call back directly to the user's Vocera badge.

This feature could prove especially useful in a health care environment where nurses may need to track down doctors who have left the hospital. With typical pages, Pramanik noted, "there's this whole page and wait scenario where the nurse first requests a doctor's assistance by letting the unit secretary know, she then pages the doctor, the unit secretary then waits for the doctor to call back," and so on. Voice initiated paging allows the doctor to be connected directly with the nurse as soon as he receives her page. "It will improve productivity significantly," he said.

Other new features include urgent calling, which allows users to break through another call or reach someone in "do not disturb" mode in the case of an emergency; call by department, which lets users place a call by saying only the first name and department of the person they are trying to reach (e.g., Call Janice in ER); called-party status, which tells callers whether the person they are trying to reach is simply on another call or not on the network at all (there are four status messages: not on the network; not logged in; busy on another call; and not available); and the global address book, which is a shared list of numbers that all users have access to.

Version 2.0 is a free upgrade for existing Vocera customers. Server software licenses start at $20,000 for a 75-seat users' license. The Vocera Communications Badge is $350.



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