Add ‘detecting unauthorized wireless access points’ to your job description

As wireless LANs are adopted by more and more workplaces, IT managers are being presented with a whole new set of challenges. While the old adage that prior planning prevents poor performance is as true as ever, when it comes to running a wireless LAN, the IT manager’s biggest foes may be their own


Gemma Paulo, a senior analyst with Scottsdale, Ariz.-based In-Stat/MDR, says one of the main problems facing companies is people going around their IT managers, picking up cheap boxes at retail stores and installing them.

Unknown to the IT manager, an unauthorized wireless LAN creates a rogue access point on the network. The manager doesn’t know about it, and security isn’t enabled, creating a host of potential problems.

“”It’s not that hard to do,”” says Paulo.

While there are tools available to help IT staff sniff out rogue access points on the network, Paulo says many workers are playing a game of cat and mouse with their IT managers.

“”Sometimes the workers will turn off their access points when they know the IT manager is coming around, so they won’t be able to find them,”” Paulo says.


Security is a major concern with wireless LANs, and Paulo says if you buy from one of the major infrastructure vendors, there are a lot of options that come standard. The key is to actually use them.

“”A lot of these low-end access points deployed in departments usually don’t have WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy) turned on at all, which is the real basic-level security,”” says Paulo.

It’s also important to know how many access points you have in your enterprise, so a hacker can’t just put a rogue access point on. You want to be able to see all the clients on the network, making sure only authorized people have access.

Roger Skidmore, president of Austin, Tex.-based Wireless Valley Communications, says the range of problems he’s seen managers of wireless LANS dealing with is pretty wide.

“”Everything from the equipment being stolen — that particularly seems to be a problem on college campuses — to people ‘war-driving,’ where you park outside a company and pick up the signal,”” says Skidmore.

Again, planning and configuration is important, and tools are available to help ferret out potential problems beforehand.

With most wireless LANs operating on a common, unregulated band, Skidmore says it’s important to find out what other networks are in the area and could interfere with your LAN. This is necessary if you want to avoid having quality of service problems after installation.

“”Every MacDonalds and Starbucks in the U.S. could potentially deploy their own wireless LAN, so a site survey or measurement product where you can walk around the facility and see what other wireless LANs are in place, or how many microwave ovens will be effecting your signal, is important,”” says Skidmore.

Once the LAN is installed, products such as Wireless Valley’s LANFielder and SiteSpy enable remote monitoring of the network, which is useful for organizations monitoring several networks in different locations.


“”You can, from the Internet, pull up the floor plan of the facility, see all the access points you have positioned, and immediately extract information about what’s going on with the network,”” says Skidmore.

It also lets you set a baseline performance trend, and build in alarm triggers should performance vary sharply from that baseline.

Brad Masterson, product manager for Fluke Networks Canada, says many problems can be avoided by designing a strong network and asking yourself who needs wireless access, where it’s needed and why.

“”You have to really have a deployment strategy on why you’re implementing this new technology, especially in today’s economy, where everything has to be cost justified,”” says Masterson.

Products like Fluke’s OptiView Integrated Network Analyzer can help monitor and troubleshoot the network, making sure you’re getting the performance you want, and helping you find solutions when problems occur.

As your network starts to grow and more users are added, capacity becomes an issue. You may need to add access points to increase your coverage area, to ensure hassle-free roaming and that you have the capacity to handle all your users.

“”As more users go on, you have to put more access points up, and in order to do that you have to be able to take a snapshot of your bandwidth and be able to look at how much is being used,”” says Masterson. “”That’s where load balancing and capacity management comes in for your wireless network.””

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Jeff Jedras
Jeff Jedras
Jeff Jedras is a technology journalist with IT World Canada and a member of the IT Business team. He began his career in technology journalism in the late 1990s, covering the Ottawa technology sector for Silicon Valley North and the Ottawa Business Journal. He later covered the technology scene in Vancouver before joining IT World Canada in Toronto in 2005, covering enterprise IT for ComputerWorld Canada and the channel for Computer Dealer News. His writing has also appeared in the Vancouver Sun & the Ottawa Citizen.

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