America's love affair with wireless connectivity continues to grow with no end in sight. The FCC reports that U.S. cell phone usage now exceeds landline usage, with close to 200 million American cell phone lines in operation. Notebooks outnumber desktops these days and most laptops come with wireless as a standard feature. As a result, more and more small businesses are finding ways to integrate wireless technology into their daily operations.
"The benefits of mobility in business are well known, and they are as applicable to SMBs as they are to larger enterprises," says Nikos Koutsoukos, director of small business product line management at small-business networking giant, 3Com. "Smaller businesses need to be more flexible both physically and in it terms of business, and going wireless allows them to do so."
American firms are finding a number of ways to incorporate wireless products into their everyday tasks. Transportation companies and businesses with small fleets of cars or trucks, for example, can track vehicle movement using GPS-enabled cell phones. They simply log onto their computer and can see instantly the location of each vehicle. Cheetah Tracks, by Westlake Village, Calif.-based Cheetah Software Systems Inc., is one example of such a product, targeted at companies with two-to-50 vehicles. All it takes is a cell phone, an Internet connection and a PC running Microsoft MapPoint. The cost is $15 per cell phone, per month.
Other wireless applications include letting sales people access the company database from anywhere, controlling inventory and letting field technicians update customer accounts or service call systems while out on the road. Such functionality not only saves time and money, but it also improves an organization's productivity since salespeople no longer need to connect to the network in the morning, download their data and then return to the office to upload their activity reports. That translates into more face time with customers.
Branch in a Box
While wireless networks used to be a little cumbersome to implement, vendors are now coming out with plug-and-play tools that make wireless networking relatively pain free. "There have been more 'branch-in-a-box routers' coming on the market that include wireless as an option," says Michael Disabato, an analyst at the Burton Group. "Such tools eliminate multiple boxes and simplify management."
NetGear, Inc.. of Santa Clara, Calif., for instance, offers the ProSafe Wireless Access Point (Model WG102). It is an entry-level, all-in-one wireless access point (AP), bridge and repeater, and it provides strong, built-in security. For example, it helps detect rogue (unauthorized) APs, i.e., access points that aren't part of the official company network but let outsiders sneak in undetected. The ProSafe Wireless AP costs $179.99
Linksys, now part of Cisco Systems, Inc., also offers an all-in-one solution with its Linksys Wireless-G VPN Router (Model WRV54G). For $99 it provides virtual private network (VPN), switch, access point, firewall capabilities for small businesses such as coffee shops so that they can turn their business into a hotspot for customers.
3Com, on the other hand, offers what it calls the market's first convergence bundle. It combines a voice-ready switch with an SMB IP telephony platform (to run voice traffic over an Ethernet network) and secure wireless support. It is a much more comprehensive product than those listed above, but comes at a higher price around $2,000.
"In such a product, traditional router functions have merged with security and other functions to ensure that a Wide Area Network (WAN) can work well over a geographically dispersed environment," says Koutsoukos. "More sophisticated wireless and networking technology is available to SMBs since it's now easier to use and more affordable."
Even with increased vendor choices and lower costs, some small businesses aren't rushing to implement wireless. Why? Many remain nervous about wireless security. There are just too many stories unauthorized access to business networks due to lax wireless security practices.
"Security is still a huge issue in wireless," says Disabato. "With the spread of Wireless Local Area Networks (WLANs), it's far too easy for an unauthorized person, or company, to piggyback on to your wireless network unless you have the right security measure in place."
Vivek Chugh, NetGear's product line manager agrees. He says if you're going to deploy a wireless network, you have to ensure the security of the data being sent over that network.
"Securing your data over a wireless infrastructure has matured over a period of time, and there are technologies built into today's access points and routers that prevent unauthorized personnel from associating with your wireless network and accessing your sensitive data," says Chugh.
"The key step to deploying a wireless network in any SMB environment is planning the installation and setup and deciding on what security mechanism to put in place, so that unauthorized users don't steal your sensitive data," he says. For example, modern APs include features that prevent unauthorized users to connect to a wireless network through rogue access points.
Chugh also brings up an important point about the types of wireless threats that now exist. Due to the proliferation of the technology, more and more avenues of potential security weakness can be exploited.
"The biggest change in the past year for SMB networks has been Unified Threat Management (UTM) on the security side," he says. UTM provides anti-spam, anti-spyware, anti-virus support combined with firewall and VPN technology for a turn-key solution that encompasses all forms of network access, both wired and wireless."
Until recently, UTM has been more of an enterprise-level tool. The good news for small businesses is that such products to the market are designed for and targeting smaller firms. NetGear and Computer Associates Inc. , are examples of companies with security suites aimed at small business.
Acronyms and Numbers
What features should business owners look for in wireless products? Unfortunately, a quagmire of terminology, acronyms and hard-to-decipher standards makes this a challenging question. For example, 802.11is a common term that deals with wireless technology. It is the umbrella standard for most types of wireless networking. The only problem is that there are so many variations of it, that it's hard to keep up 802.11a, 802.11b, 802.11g, 802.11i and 802.11n.
To keep it simple, 802.11g is a safe bet for current equipment and offers a data transfer rate of around 24.7 Megabits per second (Mbps). A new variation called 802.11n is coming out soon which will increase those speeds greatly over 100Mbps of raw throughput on a wireless network. This is just about as fast as can be experienced over a hard-wired network.
Then there's the acronym nightmare that concerns wireless security terms. Originally there was Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) but it faltered rapidly and was replaced by Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP). WEP added encryption to a largely wide-open WAP, but it failed to provide the same level of security as hard-wired networks. Then came Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA). It included more advanced encryption and stronger user authentication. WPA was actually pretty good, but another called WPA2 has recently become available that is even more secure.
"WEP is insufficient to protect wireless networks from determined attackers," says DiSabato. "However, WPA/WPA2 is a dramatic improvement in Wi-FI security that resolves all of WEP's known weaknesses. They provide enterprise-class security for user authentication and encryption."
His advice is to phase out WEP-based gear rapidly and move to WPA or WPA2. WPA may well be enough for most small businesses. So companies with WPA networks, he says, don't need to rush to upgrade. "If you don't have WPA installed, go straight to WPA2," says Disabato. "Everyone else should plan on going to WPA2 within two-to-three years."
Koutsoukos of 3Com suggests that choosing the wireless standard and speed should be based on a solid migration path for the future. You don't want to adopt technology today that may give you compatibility trouble in a year or two.
"Choose a solution that lets you grow and protects your initial investment while keeping the initials costs low," he says. "And if the wireless infrastructure starts to grow rapidly, small business will have to give some thought as to how they can simplify its management."
Wireless for All?
Who should go wireless? Wireless vendors, understandably, feel that wireless should be be adopted broadly.
"If small businesses are looking for anywhere/anytime network access, then they should deploy a wireless infrastructure," says Chugh. "A company can provide its salespersons with wireless devices, so that they can download list of customers that they need to visit and send back activity reports through a wireless network."
Disabato, however, feels that it isn't a question of who should go wireless but what. "Anyone can go wireless, provided they can justify the benefits and the potential security risks," he says. "What should not go wireless are devices like printers, scanners and other high-bandwidth devices that can adversely impact performance. Also, critical applications like call centers should remain wired."
This article was first published on SmallBusinessComputing.com.