Navigating the Quest for a Wireless Office

Have I mentioned that I want a wireless office? Because I do. I’m still researching bandwidth and security issues that could arise with going completely wireless.  You may have seen the article I wrote about Zoom Room --  they’ve created a Mac-based wireless environment.  But we use PCs at my office and I don’t think that’s going to change anytime soon.  So, my question is, how can I make sure the wireless network is safe enough and robust enough to handle the day-to-day operations of my company?

Whether or not a wireless connection can handle the load from an entire office depends largely on the type of files that employees share with each other. 

According to Dave Rosenbaum, president of Real-Time Computer Services, “If the office staff is largely using data from an internal server, and if the data files are relatively small and largely non-interactive (i.e. word processing documents and spreadsheets), then the WiFi bandwidth, although limited, may not have a material impact on usability or performance.  However, if employees are using data from an internal server and the data files are large (i.e., large PowerPoint or video files), or if the files are highly interactive (i.e. databases), then the WiFi bandwidth can be a significant limitation and bottleneck, and can create a much less useable environment than wired connectivity.”

That makes me a little nervous.  Many files that we share are simple Word documents or spreadsheets, but employees are also working on PowerPoints for Webinars as well as videos for YouTube

Steve Peters of Kuma Signals gives this insight about interference:

“With multiple access points, you have many users who are potentially interfering with each other.  In a dense environment, the interference can become an issue that affects your data rate. ”

Kuma Signals has two government contracts with the Department of Defense working on wireless communication.  “We work on the Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS), and specifically on a project called the Wideband Networking Waveform (WNW).  That’s the part of JTRS that’s most like commercial broadband wireless,” says Peters.  It’s positive news that the government is investing money into wireless communication.  The research that occurs in that area will spill over into the commercial space.

Rosenbaum is pessimistic that WiFi will ever get larger bandwidth than wired speeds:  “Wireless speeds keep increasing, but still lag far behind wired speeds (which also keep increasing).  And data keeps getting bigger.” 

But others, like Jeff Schmidt, CEO of JAS Global Advisors, are more optimistic:  “Because of the cost benefits, and the prevalence of smart mobile devices, a true wireless office is technically possible today and will become increasingly common in the future.”

Cost is what led me to this search of a wireless office in the first place.  I was astounded when I learned how much it will cost to wire our new office space.  It seems silly to stick with wires when WiFi is becoming more and more available, especially in mobile technology.  Mobile devices on the company network must be considered when thinking about WiFi security.

“Many employees access WiFi networks with their mobile devices,” says Schmidt. “Since mobile device configuration is often outside of the purview of corporate security staff, this adds an additional security vulnerability.  In other words, while company laptops may be well protected, malware on a mobile phone could potentially jump to the corporate network via the WiFI connection.”

So what is the most critical component for securing my company’s WiFi?  Schmidt says start with a closed WiFi:

“I define a closed WiFi as one that is authenticated and encrypted using a technology like WiFi Protected Access (WPA) which limits the wireless connection between the device and the wireless base station to authenticated parties and encrypts the traffic flowing over the wireless. A closed WiFi is also limited to authenticated parties, so the risk of rogue connections to your local device decreases.  The over-the-air connection is encrypted, so the risk of snooping or altering the traffic on that leg is reduced.  Note this only addresses the wireless leg; only end-to-end encryption (SSL, VPN, etc) solves the entire problem. Overall, treat a WiFi no differently than any untrusted network connection.  Use other time-tested technologies, particularly SSL and Virtual Private Networks, to assure security on an end-to-end basis.”

WiFi must be encrypted, passwords should be changed often, and remember: there is no such thing as 100% security for WiFi.  You can protect the WiFi like an armored truck, but if you give the keys to the wrong person, then your information is in the wrong hands. 

Would you consider taking your company completely wireless?

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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